- Stress is associated with many negative physical and mental health consequences.
- A recent study finds that after exposure to a social stressor, hugs and self-soothing touch can reduce stress and cortisol levels.
- People experiencing stress who do not have social support may benefit from using self-soothing touch techniques.
Stress, particularly when chronic, is associated with many negative health consequences. An effective way to reduce stress and lower cortisol (the “stress hormone”) involves physical contact—be it in the form of touching, stroking, hand-holding, hugging, or massaging. Indeed, some research shows touch (especially massage) can reduce cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate while increasing oxytocin. The psychological benefits of touch are no less significant. For instance, in a study of married couples, touch was associated with reduced stress, greater self-esteem, and more confidence in one’s ability to overcome stress.
Might hugs from a stranger also lower stress and cortisol? What about self-touch? Keep these questions in mind as we turn to a study by Dreisoerner and colleagues in Germany, published in the November 2021 issue of Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Investigating touch for stress relief
Sample: 159 (62 men) German-speaking participants; average age of 22 years (range of 18-35 years).
Methods: Participants were exposed to a social stressor known as the Trier Social Stress Test (involving public speaking and mental arithmetic). After they had prepared for the test, they were assigned to either a hug, self-soothing touch, or control condition. Note, there were six conditions, but for the purposes of this post, we will focus only on these three, which are described below.
Hug condition: Participants received a 20-second hug from a female research assistant. During the hug, they were instructed to focus on their breath and feelings of warmth. The authors note, “The hug was always initiated by the confederate, first making eye contact, then embracing front-to-front with the right arm reaching over and the left arm reaching under, hands placing flat on the lower back and shoulder blade.”
Self-soothing touch condition: Participants were asked to give themselves a self-soothing touch. Of the options demonstrated, most selected the option of placing the “right hand on the left side of the chest (above the heart) and the left hand on the abdomen.” As with the hug, they were asked to do this for 20 seconds and focus on the breath, feelings of warmth, and the pleasantness of the pressure.
Control group: Participants built paper planes.
After the assignment, the stress task and additional questionnaires were completed.
Measures included salivary cortisol, heart rate, dispositional stress reactivity, chronic stress, and dispositional self-compassion. The main dependent variable was subjective-emotional stress response. This was assessed using the German version of the Subjective-Emotional Response Scale, which consists of 15 items that measure the intensity of feelings (e.g., nervous, satisfied).
Self-soothing touch, hug, and stress relief
Analysis of data from this randomized controlled study showed the following:
Individuals in the hug condition and self-soothing touch condition, compared to the control group, had “reduced cortisol secretion responses to socio-evaluative stress with lower average cortisol values on three out of four measurement points after the stressor.” In addition, self-soothing touch was rated as more pleasant than receiving a hug. And “the self-soothing touch condition showed faster recovery of cortisol levels to near-baseline after the stressor than the control group.”
The findings agree with previous work that shows receiving hugs has a positive effect on stress. However, the effect size in the present study was not as large. Why? Perhaps because participants were hugged by a stranger, not someone they knew. Being hugged by a friend, family member, or romantic partner may have stronger positive effects. For instance, a previous investigation found self-stroking is not as pleasant as being touched by a romantic partner.
Why does touch lower cortisol levels?
Why did self-soothing touch and receiving a hug result in lower cortisol levels? The authors propose two mechanisms:
- Tactile stimulation: The reduction in stress, whether due to self-soothing touch or receiving hugs, may be due to the stimulation of “C-fiber receptors that then stimulate vagal and parasympathetic activity that helps regulate stress responses.”
- Activation of self-related psychological constructs: Receiving hugs could potentially activate “psychological constructs such as social support, proximity, positive affiliation, or belonging, whereas self-soothing touch may invoke feelings of self-induced safety, intentionality, and mindfulness.” Secretion of oxytocin could also play a role.
Emotion regulation is important for mental health and psychological well-being. Emotion regulation involves influencing the generation, experience, and expression of emotions. We have several emotion-regulation systems, one of which is the soothing and contentment system and helps us feel safe, peaceful, and relaxed. And touch is an easy and quick way of activating it.
So, the next time you feel stressed, remember that one way to lower cortisol levels involves touch. Particularly in the absence of emotional support from another person (a loved one who values your happiness and well-being)—you can use a self-soothing touch to activate the soothing and contentment system, so you feel safe, cared for, loved, and content.
How to use self-touch? There is no one way to do this. So do what comes naturally and feels right, be it stroking your arms or cheeks or placing the hands on the heart and/or stomach. During the practice, concentrate on the breath and the pleasant feelings of pressure and warmth. Stay with the pleasurable sensations as long as you need.
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