Expressing Love to Daughter

A simple phone call from mom can calm frayed nerves by sparking the release of a powerful stress-quelling hormone, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Biological anthropologist Leslie Seltzer tested a group of 7- to 12-year-old girls with an impromptu speech and series of math problems in front of a panel of strangers, sending their hearts racing and levels of cortisol – a hormone associated with stress – soaring.

Facing a challenge often raises stress levels.

“Facing a challenge like that, being evaluated, raises stress levels for a lot of people,” says Seth Pollak, psychology professor and director of UW-Madison’s Child Emotion Lab.

Once stressed, one-third of the girls were comforted in person by their mothers – specifically with hugs, an arm around the shoulders and the like. One-third were left watch an emotion-neutral 75-minute video. The rest were handed a telephone. It was mom on the line, and the effect was dramatic.

“The children who got to interact with their mothers had virtually the same hormonal response, whether they interacted in person or over the phone.”

Stressful Situation

The girls’ levels of oxytocin, often called the “love hormone” and strongly associated with emotional bonding, rose significantly and the stress-marking cortisol washed away.

“It was understood that oxytocin release in the context of social bonding usually required physical contact,” Seltzer says. “But it’s clear from these results that a mother’s voice can have the same effect as a hug, even if they’re not standing there.”

And the reprieve from stress or anxiety is a lasting one.

“It stays well beyond that stressful task,” Pollak says. “By the time the children go home, they’re still enjoying the benefits of this relief and their cortisol levels are still low.”