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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 endorsed cuddling with your spouse, saying it actually helps banish stress.

That’s because a hug, even if it lasts seconds, can dampen the body’s natural response to demanding situations.

However, only women seem to be able to reap the benefits. No visible stress-reducing effects were observed in men.

German researchers said this could be because women find hugging “significantly more pleasurable” than men.

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

The experts said their findings, based on 76 couples, show that “social contact can buffer stress.”

But now scientists have backed cuddling with your spouse, saying it actually helps banish stress.  That's because a hug, even if it lasts seconds, can dampen the body's natural response to demanding situations.

But now scientists have endorsed cuddling with your spouse, saying it actually helps banish stress. That’s because a hug, even if it lasts seconds, can dampen the body’s natural response to demanding situations.

A study of 76 couples in Germany found that hugging a partner for a few seconds before a stressful situation lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  The graph shows cortisol levels between women (upper graph) and their male partner (lower graph).  Half of the participants were told to hug before completing a stress test (purple dots), while the other half did not hug (pink dots).  Only women seem to be able to reap the benefits (purple dots go down 15 and 25 minutes after testing).  No visible stress-reducing effects were observed in men.

A study of 76 couples in Germany found that hugging a partner for a few seconds before a stressful situation lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The graph shows cortisol levels between women (upper graph) and their male partner (lower graph). Half of the participants were told to hug before completing a stress test (purple dots), while the other half did not hug (pink dots). Only women seem to be able to reap the benefits (purple dots go down 15 and 25 minutes after testing). No visible stress-reducing effects were observed in men.

Previous research has shown that massages, hand hugs, and cuddling along with talking lovingly with 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 the Ruhr University Bochum in Germany studied couples between the ages of 19 and 32.

WHAT HAPPENS TO THE BODY WHEN IT IS STRESSED?

When you are anxious or scared, the body releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

Most people feel stressed at times, 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, constant worrying, and forgetfulness.

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

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

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

Source: National Health Service

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

All participants underwent a stress induction test, in which they were asked to hold one hand in an ice-cold 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 hold each other. They were left in a room for 20 seconds to encourage a ‘natural cuddling experience’.

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

The findings, published in PLUS ONEshow that women who hugged their partner had lower cortisol levels after the task, compared to those in the control group.

The team suggested that the presence and support of others, especially through touch, may “act as a buffer for the body’s response to stress.”

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

The researchers suggested this could be because men produce less oxytocin, the love hormone, after a hug.

Higher levels of oxytocin are linked to a drop in cortisol production, so men’s stress levels may not be affected by a hug if it doesn’t trigger oxytocin.

The study did not look at oxytocin levels. But previous studies have shown that women perceive touch as “significantly more pleasurable” than men and release more oxytocin in response.

“Thus, the mutual embrace could have elicited higher levels of perceived pleasure, and thus higher levels of oxytocin release, in women compared to men, which could explain the observed difference,” they said.

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

The findings suggest that a brief embrace with a romantic partner may be “a very feasible method in everyday life” to reduce the cortisol response in women facing stressful situations, such as exams, job interviews or presentations.

They said that future studies should examine whether hugging with platonic friends can reduce stress levels.

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

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