Women who embraced their romantic partner subsequently had lower stress-induced cortisol response. But partner embrace did not buffer the response to stress for men.
Women instructed to embrace their romantic partner prior to undergoing a stressful experience had a lower biological stress response—as indicated by levels of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva—compared to women who did not embrace their partner. This effect was not seen for men. Gesa Berretz of Ruhr University Bochum, Germany, and colleagues present these findings today (May 18, 2022) in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.
In some situations, social touch may buffer against stress. Previous research has demonstrated that massages, embraces combined with hand-holding, and embraces combined with affectionate communication can all reduce signs of stress in women. However, few studies have investigated these effects in men, nor have they explored the effects of brief hugs on their own.
To explore the potential stress-reducing effects of embracing, Berretz and colleagues conducted an analysis of 76 people in romantic relationships. All of the participants underwent a stress-inducing test in which they were asked to keep one hand in an ice-water bath for three minutes while being observed and maintaining eye contact with a camera. Prior to this test, half of the couples were instructed to embrace, and the others did not embrace. The researchers measured various indicators of stress, including participants’ salivary cortisol levels, before and after the experiment.
Statistical analysis revealed that women who embraced their partner had a lower cortisol response to the stress test than women who did not embrace their partner. However, for men, no associations were observed between embrace and stress-induced cortisol response. Other measures of stress including changes in blood pressure and emotional state did not show any associations with partner embrace.
These results suggest that a brief embrace with a romantic partner might subsequently reduce the cortisol response for women facing stressful social situations, such as school exams, job interviews, or presentations. Further research could investigate whether this benefit extends to embraces with platonic friends.
The authors also call for research into related effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such investigations could explore whether social restrictions that reduced social touch may be associated with observed increases in stress and depression during the pandemic.
The authors add: “As a woman, hugging your romantic partner can prevent the acute stress response of your body.”
Reference: “Romantic partner embraces reduce cortisol release after acute stress induction in women but not in men” 18 May 2022, PLOS ONE.
Funding: O.T.W. is financially supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (project number: 400672603; grant: WO733/18-1). S.O. is financially supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (project number: 400672603, OC127/9-1). J.P. was financially supported by the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina (LPDS 2021-05) and received his salary from this organization. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The authors acknowledge support by the DFG Open Access Publication Funds of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum.