A brief hug with a loved one reduces cortisol and helps women face stressful situations, says research.
Social forms of touch are used in all cultures and have important functions in everyday life; shaking hands, greeting, demonstrating love and affection, or consoling and soothing.
Previous research has found forms of touch such as massage or holding hands help to buffer stress by lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation and lifting the mood.
Gesa Berretz and colleagues from Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, wanted to know if similar health benefits occurred during brief moments of touch. So the team devised an experiment to see how romantic couples responded to stress after a short hug with their partner.
The 38 couples in the study performed a stress test (dipping their hand in an ice-cold bucket of water for three minutes).
Half the group hugged their partner for a few seconds before the stress test, and the other half didn’t.
The researchers measured markers for stress before and after the test, including cortisol levels, blood pressure and questionnaires to assess mood.
The results published in the open access journal PLoS One showed women, but not men, who hugged before the stress test had lower cortisol responses than the control group who didn’t embrace.
Previous research shows women find touch ‘more pleasant’ than men and release more of the hormone oxytocin in response.
Oxytocin plays a vital role in social bonding, lowering heart rate, reducing stress and anxiety, and is released through touch, music, and exercise.
The researchers speculate that women and men respond differently to stress-inducing situations.
The results showed no differences in blood pressure or mood between the groups.
“These findings suggest that in women, short-term embraces prior to stressful social situations such as examinations or stressful interviews can reduce the cortisol response in that situation,” the authors wrote.
Berretz G, Cebula C, Wortelmann BM, Papadopoulou P, Wolf OT, Ocklenburg S, et al. (2022) Romantic partner embraces reduce cortisol release after acute stress induction in women but not in men. PLoS ONE 17(5): e0266887. https:// doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266887
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