Hugging really does beat stress… but only if you’re a woman

If you feel stressed about work, hugging your partner briefly may be your natural reaction.

But now scientists have given their backing to tenderly embracing your spouse — saying it really does help to banish stress. 

That’s because a cuddle — even if it lasts seconds — can buffer the body’s natural response to taxing situations.

However, only women appear able to reap the benefits. No visible stress-reducing effects were seen in men.

German researchers said this could be down to women finding hugs ‘significantly more pleasant’ than men.

They also produce more of oxytocin in response. The love hormone, as it is known, interferes with the production of cortisol, therefore helping to reduce levels of the stress hormone in the body.

Experts claimed their findings, based on 76 couples, show ‘social touch may buffer against stress’.

But now scientists have given their backing to tenderly embracing your spouse ¿ saying it really does help to banish stress. That's because a cuddle ¿ even if it lasts seconds ¿ can buffer the body's natural response to taxing situations

But now scientists have given their backing to tenderly embracing your spouse — saying it really does help to banish stress. That’s because a cuddle — even if it lasts seconds — can buffer the body’s natural response to taxing situations

A study of 76 couples in Germany found that embracing a partner for just a few seconds before a stressful situation lowered levels of stress hormone cortisol. The graph shows cortisol levels among women (top graph) and their male partner (bottom graph). Half of participants were told to hug before completing a stress test (purple dots) while half did not hug (pink dots). Only women appear able to reap the benefits (purple dots lower 15 and 25 minutes post-test). No visible stress-reducing effects were seen in men

A study of 76 couples in Germany found that embracing a partner for just a few seconds before a stressful situation lowered levels of stress hormone cortisol. The graph shows cortisol levels among women (top graph) and their male partner (bottom graph). Half of participants were told to hug before completing a stress test (purple dots) while half did not hug (pink dots). Only women appear able to reap the benefits (purple dots lower 15 and 25 minutes post-test). No visible stress-reducing effects were seen in men

Previous research has shown massages, hugging combined with hand holding and hugging alongside speaking affectionately to a partner can reduce stress in women.

But few studies have investigated the effects on men, or whether hugging alone can combat stress.

Researchers at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany studied couples, aged between 19 and 32.

WHAT HAPPENS TO THE BODY WHEN STRESSED? 

When anxious or scared, the body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.

Most people feel stressed sometimes and some people find stress helpful or even motivating. 

But for some, stress can cause symptoms that interfere with daily life.

These include physical symptoms, such as headaches, muscle tension and stomach problems and mental symptoms, including difficulty concentrating, constantly worrying and being forgetful.

Some also have changes in their behaviour, becoming irritable and eating or sleeping too much or too little.

Stress can be triggered by work, family, financial issues or health problems. 

The NHS advises people struggling with stress to talk to friends, family or a doctor, use breathing exercises and plan ahead for stressful events.

Source: NHS 

This is because embracing a partner has been shown to trigger a stronger positive emotional response.

All participants underwent a stress-inducing test, in which they were asked to keep one hand in an ice-water bath for three minutes.

They were asked to maintain eye contact with a camera for three minutes.

Before the test, half of the couples were instructed to hug. They were left in a room for 20 seconds to encourage a ‘natural experience of the embrace’. 

The researchers measured indicators of stress — including cortisol levels through saliva samples, blood pressure and a survey on their mood — before and after the experiment.

The findings, published in PLOS ONE, show women who hugged their partner had lower cortisol levels after the task, compared to those in the control group.

The team suggested the presence and support of others, especially through touch, can ‘act as a buffer towards the bodily stress response’.

But there was no link between hugging and stress levels among men.

The researchers suggested this could be down to men producing less of the love hormone oxytocin following a hug. 

Higher oxytocin levels are linked with a drop in cortisol production, so men’s stress levels may be unaffected by a hug if it does not trigger oxytocin. 

The study did not look at oxytocin levels. But earlier studies have shown that women perceive touch as ‘significantly more pleasant’ than men and release more oxytocin in response.

‘Therefore, the mutual embrace might have elicited higher levels of perceived pleasantness and thus higher levels of oxytocin release in women compared to men which could explain the observed difference,’ they said. 

The researchers noted there was no link between other indicators of stress – such as blood pressure and emotional state – among those who hugged. 

The findings suggest a brief hug with a romantic partner may be ‘a highly feasible method in everyday life’ to reduce the cortisol response for women facing stressful situations, such as exams, job interviews or presentations. 

They said future studies should examine whether hugs with platonic friends can bring down stress levels.

The researchers also called for studies into whether Covid restrictions that reduced physical contact caused an increase in stress and depression during the pandemic.

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