SciTech

Hugs and social support linked to physiological benefits

Credit: Ashley Chan/ Credit: Ashley Chan/

Hugging is an art. There are so many moving parts to keep in mind as you wrap yourself around someone else — arm placement, head and neck placement, hug duration. There are multiple types of hugs — the “bro hug,” the “grandma hug,” and even the “awkward acquaintance” hug.

Now, there is even evidence that hugs have psychological effects that translate to physiological benefits. Research coming out of Carnegie Mellon’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences has pointed to the immunological and stress-relieving effects associated with hugs, as well as an embrace’s connection with perceived social support.

The study, led by Sheldon Cohen, the Robert E. Doherty University Professor of Psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, assessed 404 healthy adults’ perceived social support, frequency of hug reception, and frequencies of interpersonal conflicts and then exposed the participants to a common cold virus. The researchers then observed the individuals in quarantine to assess the infection’s progress.

The data suggests that hugs were responsible for one-third of the protective effect of social support. In a university press release, 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.” While the mechanism by which this occurs is not expressly understood, there is a clear psychologically reassuring factor in the act of being hugged.

Social support in psychology is perceived or actual care provided by a social network, such as friends, family, or coworkers. Social support is, in essence, confidence that you will be supported by your social network or the act of actually being supported by people. Social support affects people by “altering [their] perceptions of their abilities to cope with adverse events,” said Cohen.

“Presumably perceiving that you have adequate support reduces the potential threat and impact of a stressful event.”

Hugs essentially act as a physical manifestation of social support, effectively reassuring the huggers and lowering their stress levels, which is relevant as stress can actually suppress the immune system. In response to stress, the brain’s adrenal cortex releases a hormone called cortisol, commonly known as the “stress hormone,” that restores homeostasis, or proper functioning, in response to stress.

According to data from the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, one of cortisol’s many functions is to suppress the immune system This means that during stressful situations, especially long-term ones, stress has an immunologically suppressive effect on the body, making one more prone to infection and disease. Interpersonal conflicts are one possible cause of this type of stress.

If someone is in conflict with members of his social group, for instance, this results in him feeling isolated, and this stress results in immune suppression, which in turn, can lead to an increased susceptibility to illness caused by increased cortisol in the blood.

This is where the health benefits of hugging, and in a larger sense, social support, come into play. Feeling socially supported can mediate these stressful feelings, and in doing so, affect the levels of cortisol in the bloodstream, which will affect one’s immune system’s ability to fight invading bodies and defend against illness. In essence, hugs, as a marker of social support, can decrease the severity of symptoms and perhaps even the duration of an illness.

While hugs produce some psychological benefits, it is worth noting that hugging a sick person will not cancel out the chances of you getting sick. Germs aren’t nice like that. It may, however, help the person being hugged to recover faster. Next time you’re hugging someone, take comfort not only in their warmth, but also in the fact that you’re doing your body and your mind good.