Hugs: An easy pill to swallow

Bear hug, lift hug, A-frame hug: There’s a hug for every occasion. Hugging is a natural expression of emotion and an important part of a child’s early development. Now researchers say that hugging is also good for our health.

A recent study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, found that more frequent hugs helped protect people from infection by reducing their stress levels, even when exposed to the flu virus. They also found that people experienced less severe symptoms from illness if they’d felt a sense of social support, a perk of frequent hugging.

For two weeks, researchers at CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences called 404 healthy adults daily and assessed their levels of social support. The study participants were asked if they’d been hugged that day, and if they were experiencing any conflicts or tension with people. Then the researchers gave them nasal drops containing either the cold or flu virus, quarantined them for about a week in a hotel and monitored their symptoms.

The results were surprising. Participants who did become infected with the cold virus and who reported having greater social support and more frequent hugs displayed less severe symptoms than those who reported lower social support and fewer hugs.

Sheldon Cohen, the study’s lead author, says these findings suggest that receiving a hug from a trusted person may trigger a sense of social support, and hugging more frequently could reduce the damaging psychological effects of stress, such as anxiety and depression.

“Nonsexual physical touch, such as hugging, is a means of conveying empathy, caring and reassurance, and that this implicit communication of affection and concern contributes importantly to the protective influence of perceived support against the pathogenic effects of stress,” the researchers wrote.

The detailed results of the study appeared in the December 2014 issue of Psychological Science.