Is the “Mama Bear” Response Triggered by a Hormone?

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

Many of us have felt an instinctual form of protective aggression in situations where one’s family unit seems threatened. Did you know that this response is caused by a hormone known as Oxytocin? Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen lay out what oxytocin is and why it’s so important you have enough of it.


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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.

Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. Here, we teach you how to win the fight for your brain, to defeat anxiety, depression, memory loss, ADHD, and addictions.

Dr. Daniel Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we've transformed lives for three decades using brain SPECT imaging to better target treatment and natural ways to heal the brain. For more information, visit

Tana Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is also brought to you by BrainMD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceutical products to support the health of your brain and body. For more information, visit Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. Hi.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Hey, baby. We're holding hands, for people who can't actually see the podcast. It's because we're going to talk about bonding.

Tana Amen: And oxytocin.

Dr. Daniel Amen: The cuddle hormone.

Tana Amen: Yes.

Dr. Daniel Amen: It's actually what you give women to cause contractions to have a baby.

Tana Amen: Pitocin. Pitocin is the synthetic form, right, or it's the medicinal form to increase contractions, so it's what helps women go into labor. It's what helps them breastfeed. I remember when Chloe was born. I still remember the three days after she was born, this bizarre euphoria coming over me, where I literally didn't sleep. I just stared at her. I'm like, "What? What is this? This is so weird," like you're kind of high.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So you fell in love.

Tana Amen: Oh, like at a level ... it's not like a normal love. It's like you would jump in front of a bus. It's the weirdest thing.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Yeah, that's a different kind of love.

Tana Amen: Yeah. It's like, don't even think about-

Dr. Daniel Amen: Oxytocin has actually been studied a lot and has been associated with bonding, love, touch, trust.

Tana Amen: Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: They've actually done studies where they've sort of sprayed it in the air, and people are more giving.

Tana Amen: Give away more money. They give away more money. 80% of people gave away money when they were ... or they gave away 80-

Dr. Daniel Amen: Can you imagine if you're at a charity auction ...

Tana Amen: A mall.

Dr. Daniel Amen: ... and they spray oxytocin in the air?

Tana Amen: Right. It would be really bad.

Dr. Daniel Amen: It's very important in making us human because humans are a bonded species.

Tana Amen: Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: When people are lonely, it's actually one of the major risk factors for depression, one of the major risk factors for Alzheimer's disease and memory problems.

Tana Amen: Could that be why some people have trouble with attaching, like attachment issues?

Dr. Daniel Amen: Because they might have a deficiency in oxytocin, and actually giving people oxytocin has shown to help decrease anxiety.

Tana Amen: So that's actually something they do now. They actually prescribe oxytocin sometimes.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Right, that many naturopaths ...

Tana Amen: For grief.

Dr. Daniel Amen: ... do. Well, one of the doctors who used to work with us, Ken Stoller, wrote a book on oxytocin, and he had a son, a teenage son, who was hit by a train and killed. He just felt so bad. He said it was like having your skin ripped off ...

Tana Amen: That's what I ... yeah, I can imagine.

Dr. Daniel Amen: ... while you're alive.

Tana Amen: Yeah.

Dr. Daniel Amen: He couldn't work. I mean it was horribly traumatic, and it just went on and on. He'd read about oxytocin. He said it was like seven seconds after he took it-

Tana Amen: What?

Dr. Daniel Amen: ... that the pain went away.

Tana Amen: How does that make sense?

Dr. Daniel Amen: I mean he said he still missed him terribly, but-

Tana Amen: But he was functional.

Dr. Daniel Amen: ... he didn't hurt so bad.

Tana Amen: So he could function.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So he became very interested in the neurochemistry of oxytocin.

Tana Amen: One thing that's interesting about oxytocin, though, and this is what I found so fascinating ... so before I had Chloe, I didn't worry that much. I wasn't so worried about things. When I had her, I thought maybe it was past trauma that all of a sudden got triggered, like, "Okay, I'm never going to let that happen to my kid." But as I began to read about oxytocin, I realized, "Oh, maybe it's oxytocin that caused that," because you not only become bonded, but they show that oxytocin is also responsible for this concept of protective aggression. So, interesting. Protective aggression. It's what makes people, police-

Dr. Daniel Amen: You hurt my kid, I'm going to kill you.

Tana Amen: Right. Police officers, like, "I'm going to protect my community. I'm going to protect my tribe." People protect their tribes. Now, if you're not part of their tribe and you are a threat, that's where the aggression comes in, but if you are part of their tribe-

Dr. Daniel Amen: Like the mama bear.

Tana Amen: Mama bear. It's a mama bear syndrome. But before I had Chloe, that wasn't there, and so I thought, well, maybe somehow my old childhood weird memories got triggered, and I was trying to protect her from that.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, but another thing is going on that would be interesting for people to know about. When you have a child, whatever age that child is at, unconsciously you begin to relive the traumas-

Tana Amen: Oh. Yikes.

Dr. Daniel Amen: ... you had at that age.

Tana Amen: That's not good.

Dr. Daniel Amen: As they go through certain developmental stages, in your unconscious mind, you're reliving those. If you've not sort of cleaned them up with psychotherapy or processes like EMDR or neuro-linguistic programming ...

Tana Amen: Right, so that could explain part of it [crosstalk 00:06:05]-

Dr. Daniel Amen: ... then they can come and bite you, and all of a sudden, you feel anxious. You feel depressed. You feel angry. You have no idea why, but it's having a child who's 13, and you got molested at 13. All of a sudden, that can trigger feelings of anxiety and depression.

Tana Amen: Oh, that's fascinating. Well, as I read about oxytocin, I'm like, "Wow."

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, you married me because I was interesting, right?

Tana Amen: You are. Yeah. You're very interesting. But I was like, "Wow, this really sort of explains some of the feelings I had gone through." I'm like protectively aggressive, like that instant mama bear. You'd jump in front of a bus or rip someone's head off that tried to mess with your kid, right? The bonding, the euphoria when you have a baby, that's like, "Oh, this is so beautiful."

Dr. Daniel Amen: And when it goes away, the withdrawal from oxytocin ...

Tana Amen: Oh, I can't even imagine.

Dr. Daniel Amen: For people who-

Tana Amen: So, grief.

Dr. Daniel Amen: ... break up, who get divorced, who lose a child or lose a spouse, the withdrawal from oxytocin has all of the opposite effects.

Tana Amen: Oh, and let's talk about when it goes wrong. Do you remember when we were interviewing Mercedes Maidana recently? She had a really, really bad accident, and she went through ... her head trauma was severe, and she went through that depression. Someone prescribed oxytocin for her, and she felt better, but all of a sudden, she became attracted to someone who she would not normally be attracted to. In fact, in her words, he was very unhealthy for her, and she knew it, but then all of a sudden, she-

Dr. Daniel Amen: Now, people are going to start getting oxytocin when they ...

Tana Amen: That's manipulation. You can't do that. But anyway-

Dr. Daniel Amen: You totally can do it. Just be moral about it.

Tana Amen: Well, yeah, you may not want to because be careful what you wish for, right?

Dr. Daniel Amen: Right. Then when the oxytocin wears off, are you still going to like them?

Tana Amen: Well, and that's the thing, is she started to realize that she was ... she's like, "Wait. I'm drawn to someone I shouldn't be and wouldn't normally be." She was making decisions she wouldn't normally make, and so that's a really interesting idea, so just something to be aware of.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, and what's interesting about withdrawal, that sometimes taking oxytocin might be able to help ...

Tana Amen: Oh, with drug-

Dr. Daniel Amen: ... with ...

Tana Amen: Drugs?

Dr. Daniel Amen: No, but with the bonding withdrawal.

Tana Amen: Oh, with grief. Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: If somebody leaves you, and you weren't ready for them to leave you [crosstalk 00:08:45] ...

Tana Amen: Just be careful not to go out to a bar when you first take it. I'm just saying.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, I actually don't think you should be going out to a bar anyway.

Tana Amen: I know, but sometimes when people go through breakups, they do silly things. Don't take oxytocin and then go out afterwards, yes, to a meat market. Just my word of warning after what I heard.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Did you really just say meat market?

Tana Amen: I did.

Dr. Daniel Amen: I haven't heard that term in a long time.

Tana Amen: It's because you don't go to those places, because I would hunt you down.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Is that the protective aggression?

Tana Amen: That's the oxytocin. Yes. That's protective aggression for my tribe.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, and it's also important why couples who want to stay together, that it's important to look in their eyes.

Tana Amen: Cuddle. Cuddle, hold hands.

Dr. Daniel Amen: It's important to hold their hands. It's important. There's an interesting thing about sex with ... so women need talking and romancing.

Tana Amen: Cuddling. Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And texting.

Tana Amen: Holding hands.

Dr. Daniel Amen: They need to be warmed up, where for guys, they don't really need to be warmed up, but they get an oxytocin burst, like 500%, after they have an orgasm.

Tana Amen: Oh, that's-

Dr. Daniel Amen: It's like she needs talking and gentle touching in order to have sex. He needs sex in order to have talking and touching.

Tana Amen: Right. Exactly. You reminded me of another interesting point. This is really important for parenting. Right along those same lines, you know how sometimes ... I hear women sometimes complaining that their husbands, like, "Oh, he just wants to be the Disneyland dad. He wants to play all the time." Really interesting. Another fact about oxytocin, moms get more oxytocin from gentle caressing, from caressing their babies and feeding them and changing diapers, from caring for the baby that way.

Dr. Daniel Amen: I get no oxytocin from changing diapers.

Tana Amen: Okay.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Never.

Tana Amen: Anyways, back on track. Dads don't get that same burst from that type of caring, from gentle caressing touches with babies. They get the burst of oxytocin from poking, playing, rolling the baby, like messing with them.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Roughhousing.

Tana Amen: That's where they get their most oxytocin, so they want to play with the baby, which is part of why you'll hear a lot of dads say, "Yeah, all of a sudden the baby became two, and I was like, all of a sudden they were a person, and I had a lot of fun with them." The way a dad plays, part of that is ... so don't criticize them for that because that's how they're bonding, and that makes the baby bond with them, too. It's just different. It's not good or bad. It's just a different way that they get oxytocin from parenting.

Dr. Daniel Amen: The cuddle hormone, increase it in your life, but not when you're with the wrong guy.

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