How Hugs Fight Stress, Depression and Sickness

Being hugged more often can protect you from infections that come with being stressed out and also bring about milder illness symptoms, according to new research from Carnegie Mellon University.

The researchers, led by Sheldon Cohen, CMU Professor of Psychology tested if hugs act as a form of social support, protecting stressed people from getting sick.

We know that people experiencing ongoing conflicts with others are less able to fight off cold viruses. We also know that people who report having social support are partly protected from the effects of stress on psychological states, such as depression and anxiety,” said Cohen. “We tested whether perceptions of social support are equally effective in protecting us from stress-induced susceptibility to infection and also whether receiving hugs might partially account for those feelings of support and themselves protect a person against infection.”

Cohen opted to study hugging as an example of social support for the reason that hugs are generally a sign of having an intimate and close relationship with another person.

Hugs Reduced the Risk of Infection

In the study, a questionnaire asked 404 healthy adults about their perceived support. Additionally, frequencies of interpersonal conflicts and receiving hugs were assessed in telephone interviews.

Participants were then purposely exposed to a common cold virus and monitored in quarantine to assess infection and signs of illness. The results demonstrated that perceived social support lessened the risk of infection linked to experiencing conflicts.

Hugs were responsible for one-third of the protective effect of social support. Among the infected participants, greater perceived social support and more frequent hugs both brought about less severe illness symptoms whether or not they experienced conflicts.

“This suggests that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress,” Cohen said. “The apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy. Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection.”

But Free Hugs Don’t Work

In a 2013 study, Jürgen Sandkühler of the Medical University of Vienna, also found that hugging has positive effects. Hugging, according to the study, can help reduce stress, fear and anxiety, has a lowering effect on blood pressure, promotes wellbeing and improves memory performance.

The positive effects are caused by the secretion of the peptide oxytocin. But only when we are hugged by someone we know very well.

Hugging strangers can have the opposite effect.

Oxytocin, a hormone produced by the pituitary gland, is mainly known for increasing bonding, social behaviour and closeness between parents, children and couples.

Increased oxytocin levels have been found, for example, in partners in functional relationships. In women, it is also produced during the childbirth process and during breastfeeding in order to increase the mother’s bond with the baby.

The positive effect only occurs, however, if the people trust each other, if the associated feelings are present mutually and if the corresponding signals are sent out,” says Sandkühler. “If people do not know each other, or if the hug is not desired by both parties, its effects are lost.”

When we receive unwanted hugs from strangers or even people we know, the hormone is not released.

“This can lead to pure stress because our normal distance-keeping behaviour is disregarded. In these situations, we secrete the stress hormone cortisol,” says Sandkühler.

The well-known worldwide Free Hugs campaign would only have a beneficial effect, says the researcher, if everyone involved is clear that it is just a harmless bit of fun. Otherwise, it could come across as an emotional burden and stress you out even more.

Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Turner, R. B., & Doyle, W. J.
Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness.
Psychological Science December 19, 2014 0956797614559284

Kathleen Keating (1994) The Hug Therapy Book. Hazelden PES. ISBN 1-56838-094-1

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