27 September 2023

Hugs can help women de-stress, but not so much for men

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Jessie Tu* discusses new research on the relationship between stress and positive physical touch.

Getting hugs from an intimate partner can significantly reduce your stress levels if you are a woman, a new study from Europe has found.

Seventy-six individuals were involved in the study and had their cortisol levels (a stress hormone) measured after receiving a hug from a loving partner.

Female participants who received hugs produced lower levels of cortisol compared with those who did not receive hugs.

The study, published last week in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, PLOS One, reiterated the common knowledge that physical contact can be emotionally helpful when it comes to alleviating negative feelings.

“Embracing your partner elicits stronger positive emotional responses both on the behavioural and neurophysiological level compared to embracing objects,” the authors of the study wrote.

“Embracing has been shown to reduce blood pressure, is associated with decreases in inflammation, and with increased subjective well-being.”

“Prolonged social touch and the associated increased levels of oxytocin have been suggested to induce a shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic activation and have been demonstrated to increase psychophysiological relaxation in women.”

The effects on men however were not as strong.

The study found no evidence that men benefitted from a short-term embrace as a potential stress buffer.

“Our results indicated that this effect is specific to women,” the study concluded.

“The effect was not mediated by differences in relationship quality as there were no difference in relationship satisfaction between women and men.

“A conceivable explanation for this sex difference could relate to varying levels of oxytocin release between men and women following the embrace.”

Oxytocin, commonly referred to as the “love hormone”, is a neurotransmitter released when physical contact is made with a loved one.

It reduces cortisol levels and helps regulate emotional responses including empathy, trust, positive memories, and compassionate communication.

One author, Julian Packheiser, told CNN he is not surprised that hugs can help with the body’s regulation.

“A hug…can help in buffering against future stressors,” Packheiser, a postdoctoral researcher with the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, wrote to CNN.

So why don’t men experience the same drop in cortisol levels as women when they receive hugs?

Packheiser believes social expectations may cause men to perceive hugs as unusual or awkward for their sex.

“It could also have to do with the difference in touch receptors in men’s and women’s biology,” he explained.

“The result difference was unexpected and is not necessarily the final word on the matter.

“Just because we did not find the effect in men, [does not necessarily mean] that it is not there.”

“The effect could simply be smaller and was just undetected.”

“A simple advice would be to hug your partner, relatives or friends if you know that they are confronted with stressful situations soon.”

Kory Floyd, a professor of communication at The University of Arizona, told science writer Madeline Holcombe the study’s sample size was small, yet it contributes to a strong body of science around non-sexual physical embrace.

“This most recent study builds on the knowledge that has already existed in the field pointing to how protective affection from a loved one is against the negative effects of stress on the body,” Floyd explained.

In 2018, a study from the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University proved that hugging after a negative conflict or incident helped people feel better.

“It’s important to remember that there is individual variation in how people respond to hugging,” Floyd said.

“For some, a hug is a welcome expression of warmth that can alleviate stress, reduce pain, and promote intimacy.”

“For others, hugging feels invasive or unnatural and can even elevate stress, rather than alleviate it.”

Packheiser believes now that many restrictions of the pandemic have been lifted, hugging can help alleviate stress when needed.

*Jessie Tu is a journalist at Women’s Agenda and author of A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing.

This article first appeared at womensagenda.com.au.

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