3 Surprising Ways Hugging Benefits Your Well-Being

Embracing someone can boost both your mental and physical health.

Posted Dec 11, 2018

Motortion Films/Shutterstock
Source: Motortion Films/Shutterstock

1. Hugging reduces the risk to catch a cold.

Life can be tough sometimes, and many of us have experienced that under high psychological stress, we are more likely to get sick and catch a cold or something worse. What helps us push through stressful periods in our lives is obviously highly individual, but for a lot of people, caring physical touch, such as a heartfelt hug, can be a great stress reliever. The interesting question is: Can it also help us be physically healthier? The answer is probably yes.

Evidence for this idea is provided in a 2015 study published in the scientific journal Psychological Science (Cohen et al., 2015). The authors investigated the relationship of hugging, social support, and the probability of getting sick in 404 volunteers from the Pittsburgh area. First, the volunteers were called every evening for 14 days and asked about their social relationships and whether or not they had been hugged that day. On average, participants received hugs on 68 percent of days, and there was a clear relationship that individuals who had been hugged more also felt like they received greater social support.

Now for the interesting part of the study: Some time after the phone interviews had been completed, the volunteers were invited to an isolated floor of a local hotel and were quarantined in separate rooms. The investigators then gave them nasal drops containing a virus that caused common-cold-like illnesses. Overall, 78 percent of participants got infected with the virus. Interestingly, how often somebody had been hugged clearly influenced the infection risk. Volunteers who had been hugged more had a decreased risk of infection. Moreover, among volunteers who got infected, those who had been hugged more had less severe symptoms, e.g., their noses were less stuffy. The authors concluded that hugging is an effective way to reduce stress and infection risk by conveying social support. Thus, the next time you feel like you might be getting a cold, consider hugging someone: It might be the thing that keeps you healthy.

2. Hugging reduces your blood pressure.

The common cold does not seem to be the only disease affected by hugging. Cardiovascular diseases are among the leading causes of death in the United States and in many other countries. One of the major risk factors for developing potentially fatal heart disease is high blood pressure. Interestingly, hugging has been suggested to reduced blood pressure, and evidence for this idea is provided in a 2005 study published in the scientific journal Biological Psychology (Light et al., 2005).

In this study, 59 women between 20 and 49 years of age who were in long-term relationships were invited to the researchers’ lab together with their partners. Upon arrival, they were separated from their partners for 30 minutes, after which their partners joined them again for 10 minutes. During this period, the couples were seated on a loveseat and were encouraged to hold hands. They also watched a romantic video and were instructed to hug each other for 20 seconds at the end of the time period. After that, the partners had to leave the room, and the women had to participate in a stress test that involved giving a free speech about an event that made them feel stressed. Before, during, and after this stress test, oxytocin, the human pair bonding hormone, was measured. The women also underwent several blood pressure measurements and had to fill out a questionnaire on how frequently they hugged their partners. The results? More frequent hugs were related to higher oxytocin levels and lower baseline blood pressure. Thus, frequent partner hugging enhances cardiovascular health and therefore potentially reduces the risk of heart disease. So the next time you leave the house and go to work, don’t forget to hug your partner: It is not only good for your relationship, but also helps keep your heart healthy.

3. Hugging can lighten up your mood, even on the worst days.

Arguing with someone we love can leave us in a terrible mood. Hugging can make things look much brighter even in such unpleasant situations. In a recent study by Murphy et al. (2018), several hundred adults were called every night for two weeks and asked about conflicts with other people in their lives, whether they felt in a good or bad mood, and whether they had received one or more hugs that day. Ninety-three percent of volunteers indicated that they had received a hug on at least one of the interview days, and 69 percent of volunteers had experienced at least one conflict with another person on one of the interview days. In general, volunteers felt better than usual on days on which they had received at least one hug, and worse on days on which they had experienced conflicts with other people. Interestingly, if they received a hug on a day in which they had also gotten into a fight with someone, the conflict appeared to lead to a smaller increase in bad mood. Moreover, hugs had a protective effect: When participants received a hug on one day and got into a fight the next day, they experienced a smaller increase in bad mood than when not having received a hug the day before. These findings suggest that hugs provide a buffer for the deleterious psychological effects that the stress caused by fighting with someone else can have on our mood. Thus, when in doubt whether to hug someone or not, as long as they feel comfortable with it, do it — it might help them (and you!) to get through the next fight a little less stressed.

For more about the research on hugging, see this previous blog post.

References

Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Turner RB, Doyle WJ. (2015). Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychol Sci, 26, 135-147.

Light KC, Grewen KM, Amico JA. (2005). More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Biol Psychol, 69, 5-21.

Murphy MLM, Janicki-Deverts D, Cohen S. (2018). Receiving a hug is associated with the attenuation of negative mood that occurs on days with interpersonal conflict. PLoS One, 13, e0203522.