Hugs relieve stress, but only in women

Even a brief hug can help you relax in a stressful situation. However, this only happens in women, reports a team led by Gesa Berretz of the University of Bochum in the journal PLoS ONE. The researchers selected 38 romantic partners for their study and asked some of them to hug. Next, they asked the participants to hold their hands in ice water for as long as possible while staring into a camera. The scientists evaluated the level of cortisol (stress hormone) in the blood of the volunteers to check the intensity of their stress.

The cortisol level increased less in the women who had been previously hugged compared to the control group participants. The researchers found no difference between the men. They conclude that hugging reduces the stress caused by a task, but only in women. However, the reason for the difference between the sexes is not clear.

Such a distinction is likely unrelated to each partner’s degree of relationship satisfaction, since both were equally happy in their relationship, the authors say. On the other hand, in 2020, researchers from La Sapienza University in Rome found in a review study that women feel greater pleasure from affective physical contact in a social context than men.

Is this difference due to the different way of socializing women and men? “I think that’s a possible explanation,” says Julian Packheiser, one of the authors of the recent paper. But there is no precise answer to the question, he points out, since little research has been done on the subject. Thus, other factors, apparently biological, could also intervene. It is possible that women release more oxytocin after a hug than men. This neurotransmitter reduces the level of cortisol. Psychologists at the University of Rome, for their part, suspect that there are good evolutionary reasons for this: in the relationship with her baby, the mother is especially sensitive to the most subtle caresses, so she could be more receptive to communication through physical contact.

Packheiser underlines as one of the conclusions of his study: “Sometimes the simplest means, such as a brief hug, can greatly help others.” However, especially in times of the pandemic, these social interactions have been noticeably neglected.

Anthony Benz

Reference: «Romantic partner embraces reduces cortisol release after acute stress induction in women but not in men». Gesa Berretz et al. posted online at PLoS ONEMay 18, 2022.

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