From lowering blood pressure to improving immunity, the health benefits of hugging have long been documented by researchers. Now, a team of scientists in Germany has found that a hug before a stressful event, such as a big presentation or an exam, can help calm your nerves. There’s one caveat, however — it seems to only work for women.
A good old hug
The research comes from scientists at the Ruhr University Bochum, who were curious to see whether hugging can help reduce stress. The hypothesis was that oxytocin — the feel-good hormone released when hugging — could help counteract the production of cortisol, aka the body’s primary stress hormone.
To test their hypothesis, the researchers subjected a small group of couples, aged between 19 and 32, to a stress-inducing experiment. The test involved each participant holding their hand under ice-cold water for three minutes.
Half of the group was instructed to hug their partners for 20 seconds before proceeding to put their hands in the cold water. The scientists used a questionnaire to gauge the mood of the participants and also measured their blood pressure and cortisol levels before and 25 minutes after the experiment.
The findings showed that women who received a hug from their partners before the test had lower cortisol levels afterward. The men, however, did not seem to benefit from any stress-relieving effects of hugging.
Why not men too?
A potential explanation of why the stress-reducing effects may work for women but not for men relates to how hugs are perceived. According to senior study author Julian Packheiser, “social touch is generally perceived as less pleasant by men.”
“It is also possible that women are better able to relax into the support of their partners,” adds Dr. Jessica Stern, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “However, because gender is socially constructed, and because our ability to lean on others is socialized, I see no reason why men couldn’t also learn to yield to the supportive presence of their partners to derive the same benefits of an embrace.”
According to the researchers, hugs from platonic friends may also yield similar benefits. “We believe that the romantic relationship per se was not important,” says Packheiser. “Ultimately, the pleasantness of the touch determines how much oxytocin is released according to previous research. Thus, it definitely needs to be a comforting hug that both people enjoy.”
It’s also worth keeping in mind that if hugs are in short supply, there are also other things you can do to relieve stress. Try exploring a new path in your neighborhood during a walk or find some greenery around you and simply listen to the sounds of nature, or engage in a calming breathing exercise.