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Getting More Hugs Is Linked to Fewer Symptoms of Depression

A new study explores the connection between hugs and depression.

Key points

  • An Italian study investigated the association between positive social touch and depression, anxiety, and stress.
  • Getting more hugs from a partner was associated with fewer depression symptoms.
  • Effects of the bonding hormone oxytocin may explain why more partner hugs are associated with fewer depression symptoms.

Hugs, kisses, and other forms of positive social touch between consenting individuals are powerful ways to communicate positive emotions such as love and happiness or social support. Surprisingly, their effects on depression, anxiety, and stress have not been well investigated in psychological science. Therefore, a recent study published in the journal Brain Sciences (Bruno et al., 2023) investigated this question.

In the study, 991 adult Italian volunteers (57% female, 18 to 85 years of age) filled out an online questionnaire. Each volunteer had to give information about the frequency of four forms of positive touch (hugging, kissing, caressing, and holding hands) before and during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the volunteers had to give information about their social connections and filled out a questionnaire that measured symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety.

More partner hugs were associated with fewer depression symptoms

As expected, the scientists found that people experienced reduced positive touch during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the time before. This was likely due to a reduced number of possibilities to meet with other people and experience social touch due to lockdowns and social distancing measures.

The statistical analysis of the associations between positive touch and depression, stress, and anxiety revealed several interesting findings. Most importantly, getting more partner hugs during the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with fewer symptoms of depression. Since the statistical analysis used by the authors does not allow us to say which of the two factors causes the other, two interpretations are possible. Either hugging reduces depression symptoms, or less depressed people hug more. Both interpretations could make sense, but the scientists suggest that it is more likely that a higher frequency of hugs reduces symptoms of depression.

Moreover, it was found that hugging relatives more often was related to reduced anxiety, but there were also effects in the other direction for relatives (more social touch being related to more anxiety). The scientists suggested that these effects may reflect anxiety about being infected with COVID-19 when touching relatives.

How can these findings be explained?

So why is more partner hugging associated with fewer symptoms of depression? The study's authors suggested that this is likely an effect of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that is important for close social relationships and bonding between people. Previous studies have shown that getting hugged by a romantic partner increases the oxytocin level. Oxytocin affects levels of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, all of which have been associated with positive emotions. This may explain why more hugs are associated with less depressive symptoms.


Bruno F, Tagliaferro C, Canterini S, Laganà V, Contrada M, Fioravanti C, Altomari N, Pistininzi R, Tarantino F, Placanica A, Greco EM, Capicotto F, Spadea S, Coscarella AM, Bonanno M, Scarfone F, Luchetta-Mattace S, Filice A, Pettinato A, Avramovic A, Lau C, Marunic G, Chiesi F. Positive Touch Deprivation during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Effects on Anxiety, Stress, and Depression among Italian General Population. Brain Sciences. 2023; 13(4):540.

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