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Stress

The Surprising Way a Good Hug Relieves Stress

A quick fix before facing a tense situation.

Key points

  • A new study investigated the effect of hugging on stress hormones in romantic couples.
  • Seventy-six volunteers were tested with the cold pressor stress test and either hugged before the stress test or did not hug.
  • Results showed that hugging leads to reduced release of cortisol, an important stress hormone, after a stressful event in women, but not men.

Can you remember the last time you felt really stressed? What helped you to calm down?

There are various strategies people can use to reduce feeling stressed—for example, talking to someone and getting reassurance from them can be helpful. In addition, it has been shown that touch can reduce stress, such as a nice massage. A new German study, now published in the academic journal PLoS ONE (Berretz et al., 2022), investigated the effects of another common form of social touch on stress: hugging.

A New Study on Stress and Hugging

In the study, the researchers invited couples to their laboratory and randomly assigned them to one of two conditions. In the experimental condition, partners were allowed to hug for 20 seconds before participating in the so-called Socially Evaluated Cold Pressor Test (SECPT). The SECPT is an established procedure to induce stress in psychological experiments. During the test, volunteers place their hands in an ice-cold water bath for a maximum of three minutes.

They are instructed to remove their hand from the water if they can no longer endure the cold. During the SECPT, volunteers are filmed with a camera and instructed to constantly look at that camera. Also, they are not allowed to talk. If a volunteer violated these instructions, the experimenter would remark.

This test induces two types of stress. On the one hand, the unpleasant feeling of having one’s hand submerged in ice-cold water leads to physiological stress. On the other hand, being filmed and scolded by the experimenter leads to psychosocial stress. Therefore, the SECPT is a reliable way of making volunteers feel stressed in psychological experiments.

In addition to the experimental condition, there was also a control condition in the study in which volunteers had to perform the SECPT but were not allowed to hug beforehand. In both conditions, the scientists measured the cortisol levels of the volunteers, as cortisol is the most important stress hormone in humans. Moreover, volunteers also filled out a questionnaire about their emotions during the experiment, and their blood pressure was measured.

What Were the Results of the Study?

The researchers first checked the couple's relationship satisfaction and found it high. Notably, there were no differences in relationship satisfaction between the experimental and the control group that could have affected the results.

In a second step, the scientists analyzed the cortisol levels of the volunteers. The scientists could show that 15 minutes and 25 minutes after the SECPT, cortisol levels were higher than before the SECPT. This shows that the SECPT successfully induced stress in the volunteers.

Interestingly, men showed a significantly higher cortisol release than women, leading the scientists to include gender in further analyses. The comparison between the experimental condition that included a 20-second hug and the control condition without a hug revealed a surprising result. Hugging reduced cortisol levels, but only in women. Hugging did not affect blood pressure and the results of the emotion questionnaire.

Thus, the study's findings suggest that in women, hugging their partner before a stressful situation (such as a job interview or a presentation) may be an efficient way to reduce stress on a biological level.

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References

Berretz G, Cebula C, Wortelmann BM, Papadopoulou P, Wolf OT, Ocklenburg S, Packheiser J. (2022). Romantic partner embraces reduce cortisol release after acute stress induction in women but not in men. PLoS One, 17, e0266887.

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