There are three types of people; touchy-feely people who always hug you hello, special occasional huggers and those who find displays of affection uncomfortable. Interestingly enough, your touchy-feely friends may also be happier and healthier, as recent research is beginning to identify the hug as a viable mental and physical health boost.
Hugs may temper the stress of conflict — even before it starts
How? For starters, a recent study published in PLoS One investigated whether the effects of a good hug can soothe you throughout the day — even if you face conflict afterward. Researchers found those who were hugged were less affected by “conflict exposure,” or interpersonal conflict, than those who weren’t hugged. The gender of the huggers didn’t matter, and neither did the context of the relationship (romantic, familial or platonic).
One of the lead authors of the study, Michael Murphy, Ph.D., post-doctoral research associate at the Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity, and Disease in the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, says it’s because touch deactivates the part of the brain that responds to threats, and in turn fewer hormones are released to signal a stress response, and your cardiovascular system experiences less stress.
“In other words, it’s linked to less of a ‘fight-or-flight’ response to stressful situations,” Murphy explains, adding that theorists believe interpersonal touch can modulate oxytocin (a feel-good hormone also known as “the cuddle chemical”) and the endogenous opioid system (neurons in the brain that can produce soothing chemicals), both of which can boost health. “Feeling safer and cared for, in turn, can make us less sensitive to physical pain and less reactive when faced with potentially threatening experiences, especially socially threatening experiences,” he says.
Hugs may boost your immune system
The notion that a hug can ease symptoms of the common cold might seem completely absurd — but research suggests otherwise. Another study from Murphy’s colleagues at Carnegie Mellon examined how stress and social support impacts immunity and susceptibility to infectious disease. Participants were exposed to a common cold virus and were then monitored in quarantine to assess signs of illness. The study found that those who felt socially supported and were hugged more often also experienced less-severe signs of illness.
“Feeling threatened and stressed can tune our immune system to act more aggressively than necessary for longer periods of time than are necessary,” says Murphy. “An over-aggressive immune system can lead to damage to bodily systems, increasing our risk for a variety of illnesses. However, to the extent that hugs make us feel safer and more cared for, they can buffer against experiences that might otherwise threaten us, protecting us from mounting an over-aggressive immune response.”
Hugs and affection at a young age can keep children healthier in the long run
Meanwhile, another study found parental affection as an indicator of a child’s future health. “Childhood adversity increases risk for mental and physical health problems in adulthood,” explains study author Judith E. Carroll, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA. What does this have to do with hugging? She told us, in her study, individuals who reported emotional and physical abuse in childhood, and limited love and affection from a parent, were most at risk for health issues later in life. Oddly enough, if an individual reported abuse but also received love and affection from a parental figure during childhood, it somehow mitigated the impact of abuse on their health.
“Our findings highlight the extent to which these early social relationships are associated with biological risk across nearly all of the body’s major regulatory systems, suggesting that there may be a way to reduce the impact abuse has, at least in terms of physical health,” Carroll told us. “Among the list of toxic stressors, childhood abuse is considered particularly harmful. Sadly, current estimates suggest as much as 1 in 4 children will experience some form of abuse and/or neglect.” Carroll says she hopes her findings will encourage public policy support for early interventions. “If we intervene early by educating and training caregivers in how to provide a loving and nurturing environment, we may also improve the long-term health trajectories for those kids.”
On the flip side of the age equation, a Swedish study of 172 nursing home residents found residents who received hugs and physical touch, connected with friends and visitors, and were otherwise active socially, had a tendency to thrive more than less social residents.
Hugs may good for your heart in more ways than one
Like Murphy mentioned earlier, hugs seem to keep the cardiovascular system from being stressed. A study, from the University of North Carolina, recruited 59 women ages 20-49 who had been living with a spouse or monogamous partner for at least six months. At first, the women were asked to sit right by their partners and recall a time they felt particularly close for a few minutes, watch a romantic video for a few minutes, talk for another couple of minutes and end with a 20-second hug. After all that, the women were separated from their partners and required to prepare and record a speech about something that made them angry or stressed out. Their findings? The hug group had lower blood pressure and heart rates during the stressful task. And the women who said they got more hugs from their partners generally had higher oxytocin levels at all phases of testing, leaving the researchers to conclude that oxytocin may be a link between hugging and lower blood pressure.
So, the next time one of your friends or family is stressed, go on ahead and offer them a hug. “The need to belong — and engaging in behaviors that affect our sense of belonging — is part of our nature as humans,” says Murphy.
His research has even personally impacted how Murphy offers support to his nearest and dearest. “In my close relationships, when someone is distressed, I am far more likely to offer a hug than I used to be,” says Murphy. “In fact, hugging is now my typical ‘go-to’ response.”
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