Vasopressin is associated with physical and emotional mobilization, and can help support vigilance and behaviors needed for guarding a partner or territory (Carter, 1998), as well as other forms of adaptive self-defense (Ferris, 2008). Vasopressin also may protect against physiologically “shutting down” in the face of danger.

In many mammalian species, mothers exhibit agonistic behaviors in defense of their young, possibly through the interactive actions of vasopressin and oxytocin (Bosch & Neumann, 2012).

Prior to mating, prairie voles are generally social, even toward strangers. However, within a day or so of mating, they begin to show high levels of aggression toward intruders (Carter, DeVries, & Getz, 1995), possibly serving to protect or guard a mate, family, or territory. This mating-induced aggression is especially obvious in males.

Immobility Without Fear

Oxytocin, in contrast, is associated with immobility without fear. This includes relaxed physiological states and postures that permit birth, lactation, and consensual sexual behavior.

Although not essential for parenting, the increase of oxytocin associated with birth and lactation may make it easier for a woman to be less anxious around her newborn and to experience and express loving feelings for her child (Carter & Altemus, 1997).

In highly social species such as prairie voles (Kenkel et al., 2013), and presumably in humans, the intricate molecular dances of oxytocin and vasopressin fine-tune the coexistence of caretaking and protective aggression.

Authors: Sue Carter and Stephen Porges, University of North Carolina, Northeastern University - Boston. Reublished via Creative Commons.

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