This guest post is written by Marcus Clarke, the author of psysci.co a psychology and science blog that examines the latest research and explains findings in simple terms.
When it comes to hugging people generally people fall in to one of two categories. Huggers: huggers love hugging and hug at any possible opportunity, huggers don’t feel the social awkwardness that others associate with hugging, whereas hug-avoiders do, hug-avoiders don’t get hugs and will avoid them at all costs.
While this categorization of hugging may not be very scientific, psychologists have actually been quite interested to find out if hugging actually has any measurable benefits.
Anecdotally most people think of hugging as supportive and this may now well be backed by science; hugging has been shown to reduce the detrimental effects of stress on the body.
The study published in the journal psychological science took fairly extreme measures in order to find the benefits of hugging by exposing 404 participants to a cold virus, the participants did take part willingly and were actually paid $1,000 each.
It was found that participants who were hugged more often were less likely to catch a cold and that participants who did catch a cold had less severe symptoms when they were subsequently hugged more.
“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.”
The act of hugging is linked to the perception of increased social support that in turn has a protective effect against some illnesses and negative psychological states.
Researchers stated that:
“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 researchers also noted that as social support has protective effects it not only has effects of supporting the immune system but is also protective of detrimental psychological states such as depression and anxiety.
Why does hugging have such a positive effect?
Hugging is known to release oxytocin, a chemical that is also known as the ‘love hormone’ or ‘cuddle chemical’ because of its impact on positive social behaviours such as trust, reducing anxiety and mother-infant bonding.
In one study with rats it was found that older rats injected with oxytocin healed up to 80% faster from muscle damage than younger rats that had not been injected with oxytocin.
Furthermore studies have also shown that if you don’t have anyone to hug, you can cheat your body and get it to release the love hormone anyway.
Studies revealed that imagining hugging actually stimulates the same parts of the brain as actually hugging.
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