(ORDO NEWS) — Women who hugged a lover before experiencing stress showed a reduced response to the hormone cortisol – compared to a control group who were forced to stick their hand in ice water without any foreplay with partners.
Women who hugged their romantic partner before the stressful event had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after the experience. However, psychologists from the Ruhr University (Bochum, Germany) did not observe such a correlation in men.
Hugging is one of the most common forms of social contact in everyday life and different cultures: this is how we greet loved ones, friends and relatives, show affection, and comfort the bereaved.
Previously, scientists have shown that hugging is influenced by the emotional state of the huggers, and such a gesture from the partner’s side causes stronger positive emotional reactions both at the behavioral and neurophysiological levels.
Hugging lowers blood pressure, has been linked to reduced inflammation, improved well-being, and even reduced risk of contracting viruses.
The authors of the new work decided to find out whether short hugs themselves can protect against the stress response.
“At the physiological level, the stress response has two separate but related branches. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system leads to a rapid release of adrenaline from the adrenal medulla , as well as noradrenaline from postganglionic neurons.
This provokes an increase in heart rate and breathing and an increase in blood pressure. This release leads to an increase in the level of adrenaline and norepinephrine in the brain, which is associated with a subjective feeling of stress.
Another branch is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis: there secretion of corticotropin-releasing hormone (or corticorelin) and arginine vasopressin from the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus causes the release of adrenocorticotropic hormonefrom the pituitary gland to the circulatory system.
This, in turn, leads to the release of glucocorticoids – steroid hormones – from the adrenal cortex. In humans, cortisol is the main glucocorticoid, so it is considered one of the main stress hormones,” the scientists explain.
To explore the potential impact of hugging on stress reduction, the team recruited 38 couples in romantic heterosexual relationships (mean age 22.3 years). None of them had a history of mental or neurodevelopmental disorders, they did not smoke or take any medication.
All subjects were asked to hold one hand in a bath of ice water for three minutes, and everything that happened was recorded on a camera, with which they had to maintain eye contact.
Prior to this test, which the researchers intended to cause stress, half of the couples hugged each other for 20 seconds, the other half did not. Various indicators of stress, including salivary cortisol levels, were measured before and three times after the experiment.
To avoid contamination of the samples, participants were asked not to eat or drink anything other than water for one hour prior to the procedure. They also filled out a questionnaire about how easy it was for them to pass the test, and the Relationship Rating Scale.
As shown by statistical analysis, in women who hugged a partner before the experiment, the release of cortisol was lower than in other participants. The highest levels of the hormone increased 15 and 25 minutes after the stress experienced.
“We found significant differences only between women and men in the first group: women showed significantly lower levels of cortisol compared to men at both 15 minutes and 25 minutes after the test,” the researchers write.
The effect observed in women could not be explained by the “quality” of relationships, because there were no differences in satisfaction with them among the subjects at all. Other indicators of stress, including blood pressure and general emotional state, showed no connection with cuddling.
“The difference between the sexes can probably be explained by the different levels of oxytocin release in men and women after hugging.
Oxytocin is hypothesized to inhibit the synthesis of adrenocorticotropic hormone in the pituitary gland, as it resembles vasopressin (or antidiuretic hormone ) in its molecular structure. Increasing oxytocin levelsassociated with a decrease in the level of vasopressin, which ultimately leads to a decrease in the secretion of cortisol in the human body.
While we did not measure participants’ oxytocin levels, an earlier study showed that women perceive affective touch as significantly more pleasurable compared to men.
Oxytocin is also known to be directly correlated with the perceived “pleasure” of gentle touch. Therefore, mutual hugs could be quite pleasant and therefore caused a higher level of oxytocin release in women compared to men, ”the scientists concluded.
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