Written by Meg Walters
A cuddle always feels good – but according to new research, hugging your partner prior to a nerve-wracking event can actually change how your brain responds to stress.
Nothing solves a bad day like a good hug – especially from your significant other. After a tough work meeting or a drama-filled brunch with friends, melting into a cuddle with your partner can be the best antidote to your feelings of stress.
But it turns out, hugs from our partners might actually play a more significant role in our wellbeing than we thought. In fact, according to new research from Ruhr University Bochum in Germany published in Plos One, when women receive hugs from their partners, they are often able to respond to stressful situations more calmly. In other words, getting a good hug from your SO on the morning of a big meeting or before a tough conversation with your friend might just help you feel less stressed later on.
A study shows that hugging and stress are linked
We already know that physical affection can help reduce stress in the present moment. One 2020 study, for instance, showed that calming touches such as a gentle tap on the shoulder could have a calming effect on the body. A 2011 study also found that physical affection could increase serotonin (the ‘happy’ hormone) and decrease cortisol (the stress hormone).
But what about the longer-lasting effects of a hug?
Researchers from Germany conducted a study in which romantic partners were asked to embrace before stress was induced. Their saliva was then measured for cortisol.
Women demonstrated significantly lower cortisol levels compared to men when put in a stressful situation following the embrace. In other words, when women hugged their partner before going through something stressful, they naturally responded to the situation more calmly.
How we can use this study
As the study points out, cortisol is the hormone that sends the body into a state of stress. In turn, this can reduce our ability to retrieve memories – if you’re already feeling stressed about an exam or a presentation, losing your ability to retrieve memories quickly and accurately might make you feel even more anxious.
However, if a quick daily hug before stressful situations is enough to lower your cortisol, you may find that these stressful scenarios suddenly feel a lot less daunting.
As the researchers also note, this new information about the importance of hugs could also be used to help couples face the ongoing stress of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Is there a gender divide in the hug-stress connection?
One interesting thing about this new study is that the effects only presented in women – for men, a hug didn’t result in a significant decrease in cortisol. This might be because women tend to produce more oxytocin during physical contact with romantic partners. This hormone (also known as the ‘love’ hormone) also plays a role in lowering cortisol.
However, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how hugs can prevent future stress. Who knows, maybe platonic hugs could also play a role in reducing cortisol?
Try it for yourself
Worried about an event in your near future? Borrow your partner and give them a hug. It might just help to reduce your stress for the rest of the day. And after all – it can’t hurt.
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