Male friendships – the stuff of bromance movies and often pitted against or portrayed as romantic relationships – could actually be good for your health by reducing your stress, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found in a rat study that mild stress made male rats more social and cooperative, and enjoyed same-sex friendships as well. Their oxytocin levels in the brain increased when they touched and huddled more, leading to better stress management and longer lives.

The hormone oxytocin has been previously shown to help people socialize and bond better, increasing resilience to stress and health. Its role in social bonding has been widely studied in male-female pairs as well as mother-child bonding.

Although often looked at as un-masculine, a bromance can actually be good for one’s health, confirmed lead author Elizabeth Kirby.

“Males are getting a bad rap when you look at animal models of social interactions, because they are assumed to be instinctively aggressive,” Kirby says, adding that even rats, on the contrary, like a good male-male cuddle after a bad day.

The hormone oxytocin – released after a stressful episode – can be a way to bring individuals closer in times of mild stress, leading to greater bonding and so-called fear extinction. In the rats’ case, a few hours of mild stress or being restrained led them to cooperate better, despite a prevailing dominance hierarchy in their group.

Among rats whose water was repeatedly taken away, there was aggression and a lot of pushing and shoving at the water source. It was a different case for mildly stressed rats.

“After taking away their water and bringing it back, they shared it very evenly and without any pushing and shoving. It was very civil,” recounts Kirby, adding that this came with higher oxytocin levels.

However, when the mild stress was replaced with something major, such as the smell of fox urine in the cage as an indicator of a nearby predator, oxytocin decreased and social bonding stopped. Just like men with PTSD or depression, the male rats were antisocial and withdrawn, often alone in a corner and exhibiting increased aggression.

According to the authors, findings of oxytocin receptors levels decreasing after severe stress support the possibility of treating PTSD with oxytocin nasal sprays to encourage socialization and recovery.

The researchers noted that this demonstrates how stress can stimulate greater interaction and bonding, serving long-term gains for mental health.

The findings were published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Photo: Aaron Tait | Flickr

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