It’s no secret that life can be stressful. Whether its dealing with tension at work or at home, many of us often feel under the gun. As it happens, when we are stressed out by those around us, we are more likely to get sick when exposed to a cold.  So, what can be done to buffer ourselves from illness in times of stress? On answer might surprise you: daily hugs.

In a paper published recently in the journal Psychological Science, a group of psychologists led by Sheldon Cohen at Carnegie Mellon University sampled over 400 healthy adults to figure out whether hugs can help keep us well in times of tension. Interpersonal stressors—think conflict or arguments with others—are known to be associated with increased risk of infection. So, the researchers wondered whether social support in the form of hugging (an activity by which we tend to convey caring and reassurance to others) could help buffer people against infection when the daily tension they experienced was high. Here is what the researchers did to find out:

Healthy volunteers were interviewed by telephone for 14 consecutive evenings to determine how much interaction they had with others. Volunteers were asked about how often in the last 24 hours they did activities such as eating a meal with others, watching TV, going on walks, and running errands. They were also asked about whether they were involved in any interpersonal tension or conflict and whether they had been hugged that day. Within a few weeks of the interviews, volunteers were quarantined in separate rooms on an isolated floor in a local hotel and given nasal drops containing viruses that cause common cold-like illnesses. The quarantine continued for 5-6 days and, on each day, volunteers were assed for infection and signs of illness.

Sure enough, experiencing more daily tension went hand-in-hand with increased infection risk. But, how much volunteers felt supported by others (that is, volunteers had people to support them, talk about problems with, etc.) protected against this risk. A similar buffering effect was found for hugging. When infected volunteers felt they had greater social support and got more frequent hugs, they had less-severe illness signs.

The take home? The age old saying that ‘an apple a day may keep the doctor away’ surely has some merit, but we may want to expand it to include ‘hugs’ too. It seems that hugging may be one way to convey social support and, when we are dealing with the tensions of daily life and more susceptible to illness because of it, a hug may help lesson our risk of infection.

For more on how our actions impact how we feel, check out my new book, How The Body Knows It’s Mind

You can also check out my book about success under stress: Choke

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Cohen, S. et al. (2014) Does Hugging Provide Stress-Buffering Social Support? A Study of Susceptibility to Upper Respiratory Infection and Illness. Psychological Science.

About the Author

Sian Beilock, Ph.D.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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