Study: Hugging Can Help Combat Stress And Boost Your Immune System

Photo by Anton Gvozdikov.


by Aaron Kase

on April 29, 2015

Feeling stressed? A hug may be just what you need to better maintain your health. According to a recent study, frequent hugging can actually help alleviate cold symptoms, and previous research has shown that hugging can also reduce blood pressure, anxiety and other ailments.

The latest study, led by Carnegie Mellon psychologist Sheldon Cohen and published in Psychological Science, looked at the impact of social support in reducing people’s stress levels.

The more social conflict people experience, the more at risk they are from illness, the research found, but social support helps to mitigate or eliminate the increased susceptibility. Hugs are a prime component of that support, and can even help reduce the symptoms in people already infected with a cold.

“What that means is that if stress puts you at risk for disease, then having high levels of social support seems to protect people from that risk,” Cohen said to Newsworks.

The study looked at 404 healthy adults, and measured their levels of social support and frequency of hugging via questionnaire and nightly interviews. Next, he quarantined the subjects after exposing them to a cold virus in order to observe how well their immune systems were functioning.

“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 in a press release. “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.”

The research backs up evidence from a 2007 study at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, which found that women who received massages before taking a test had reduced heart rates and lower levels of stress hormones.

Previous research from the University of Vienna found that oxytocin gets released in the body during a hug. Also known as the “trust hormone,” oxytocin is known to reduce your blood pressure, lower anxiety, improve memory and act as a stress-reliever, which is a lot of health benefits for a simple hug. Beware, though — the study found that the happy hugging strategy only works if you’re embracing someone you’re close to. Hugging strangers, on the other hand, can actually cause anxiety levels to spike.

“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,” Neurophysiologist Jürgen Sandkühler told the Daily Mail. “If people do not know each other, or if the hug is not desired by both parties, its effects are lost.”

Patch Adams, the counterculture doctor who was immortalized in cinematic form by Robin Williams, has always evangelized on the healing properties of hugs. Adams claims that hugging can help alleviate elevated levels of heart rate, stress, blood pressure and heart disease.

“In hugging there is everything you’re giving and everything you’re receiving,” Adams said to VCU News. “The consequence of a hug could save a life. I’ve seen it happen.”