Don't underestimate the stress-reducing power of a hug — especially if you're a woman

Researchers found that among heterosexual couples, an embrace from a romantic partner lowered cortisol levels in women, but not men.

Maija Kappler 4 minute read May 26, 2022
Artistic Colorful Digital Painting Of Couple Hugging Each Other. Abstract Art.

Hugging a person you love releases the "love hormone" oxytocin, which both makes us feel good and lowers our cortisol levels. GETTY

Have you ever felt your body and mind calm down after hugging your boyfriend? That’s a common response, according to a new study — if you’re a woman.

The research, published in the journal PLOS One, found that women’s stress levels decreased after they hugged a romantic partner, but that the same wasn’t true for men. The data is limited, though, given that the study was a small one and all the participants were cisgender and in straight relationships.

Researchers from Ruhr University Bochum in Bochum, Germany focused on cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, which controls mood, motivation and fear. They studied 76 people in couples, all between the ages of 19 and 32. (The study welcomed people of all sexual orientations, researchers say, but the couples who made it in were only people in straight, male-female relationships.)

All the couples were subject to a stress test that involved keeping their hands in ice-cold water for several minutes. A saliva sample was taken before and during the experiment to test for cortisol levels. After the stress test, half of the couples were told to hug for 20 seconds. The other — the control group — did not hug. The participants’ stress levels were tested again both 15 minutes and 25 minutes after the experiment. And no, they were not told what that hug should look like: “No specific instruction was given to allow for a natural experience of the embrace,” the study says.

They found that their participants’ cortisol levels were raised by the stress test. Following the test, at both the 15-minute and 25-minute marks, the women who had been part of the hugging group had significantly lower cortisol levels than the women in the control group, who had not hugged their partners. But “this effect was selective to women and could not be observed in men,” the study states.

Researchers still aren’t sure why the data is so different for men and women. It could be a biological factor (like a difference in receptivity to touch in men or women) or a social one (like the fact that men are generally less comfortable hugging), the study’s co-author Julian Packheiser suggested to CNN.

“Just because we did not find the effect in men, (doesn’t mean) that it is not there,” he said. “The effect could simply be smaller and was just undetected.”

The benefits of physical touch

Many previous studies have shown the positive effects that physical contact can have on our health in general: regular hugs can reduce blood pressure and inflammation, are linked to reduced infection risk and a faster recovery from viral illnesses, and overall improve people’s sense of wellbeing. And specifically hugging a person you love releases the “love hormone” oxytocin, which both makes us feel good and lowers our cortisol levels.

And previous research has also shown that massage can lower cortisol by impacting both the endocrinological system (which manages hormones, including cortisol) and the sympathetic stress response (which manages the body’s “fight or flight” responses.)

But massages are time-consuming and often pricey, meaning they’re not an accessible option for many people. “A hug on the other hand is quickly applied and can thus help in buffering against future stressors,” the study’s co-author Julian Packheiser told CNN.

Not everyone’s a hugger, of course: some people aren’t touchy-feely. But Packheiser said that generally speaking, when your loved ones are stressed, don’t underestimate the power of an embrace.

“Simple advice would be to hug your partner, relatives or friends if you know that they are confronted with stressful situations soon.”
Maija Kappler is a reporter and editor at Healthing. You can reach her at mkappler@postmedia.com
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