Can Hugs Help Ease Stress?

New research suggests that hugs can heal.

Happy meeting of two friends hugging in the street.

(Antonio Guillem /

In the iconic 1964 hit song performed by The Beatles, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, lead vocalist John Lennon belted out the famous lyrics to the cheers of an adoring crowd.

But when singing to the audience about how affectionate touch and hand-holding could cheer him up inside, did Lennon mean to reference the so-called “cuddle hormone” oxytocin? Oxytocin is famous for making people feel happier and calmer. Now, a recent study has uncovered stress busting benefits from oxytocin-releasing hugs, at least for women.

The “cuddle hormone”

Oxytocin is a hormone, nicknamed the “cuddle hormone,” Penn Medicine reports. People’s bodies produce more oxytocin when they are physically affectionate towards loved ones. Mothers also have oxytocin boosts during labor and when breastfeeding. 

Physician Paula S. Barry MD explains the positive effects of hand-holding, cuddling with one’s significant other, hugging a friend, holding a baby, and even petting a puppy. “Sometimes called the “cuddle hormone” or “feel-good hormone,” oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland when we’re physically affectionate, producing what some describe as warm fuzzies – feelings of connection, bonding, and trust,” Dr. Barry explains.

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The antithesis of oxytocin is cortisol, a stress hormone that plays a role in kick-starting the body’s flight or fight response. Affectionate touch can also block the secretion of cortisol, making one feel calmer and providing an instant mood boost.

Hugs for women

Research on the power of affectionate touch, has shown its myriad benefits for boosting overall health, including lowering blood pressure and helping fight off illnesses.

Fortune reports on recent research delineating the benefits of hugging, benefits that, at the very least, apply to half the population.

Scientists from Ruhr University Bochum in Germany subjected couples to a test. The participants had to keep their hands in ice water for three minutes. One group was told to hug their partners for 20 seconds before the ordeal, whereas the control group didn’t receive a hug.

Researchers found that women in the group that had pre-hugged their partners had cortisol levels that were significantly lower 25 minutes after the test. By contrast, both the control group and the men who had hugged partners, didn’t show significant changes in cortisol levels.

The researchers theorized as to why men didn’t glean the same benefits. Julian Packheiser, senior study author, wondered if cultural factors played a role and if “social touch is generally perceived as less pleasant by men." Psychologist, David Helfand PysD surmised that the 25 minute window may have been too short to see the cortisol reducing benefits of the hug for male participants, since “men often have more difficulty relaxing after a stressful event."

Still, the researchers agreed that the hormonal benefits of a hug weren’t dependent on the hugger being a romantic partner. Packheiser explained, "Ultimately, the pleasantness of the touch determines how much oxytocin is released according to previous research. Thus, it definitely needs to be a comfortable hug that both people enjoy." 

In other words, receiving a squeeze on the shoulder from a colleague before a stressful work presentation, holding a partner’s hand while watching a scary movie, and cuddling with a pet after a long day at work could help reduce cortisol, boost oxytocin, and lower stress associated with these situations.

Couple hugging in the park at sunset.

(Andrey Yurlov /

The perfect hug

According to John Lennon, simply holding a loved one’s hand can make one “feel happy inside,” Forbes takes it a step further, and writes about how to achieve the “perfect hug,” which may maximize cortisol busting, oxytocin boosting benefits.

The mnemonic H.U.G can help people remember the ingredients. H stands for “hold on tight,” U for “until you relax,” and G for “grow your bond.”

“Hold on tight” reminds huggers of research related to the value of deep pressure for stimulating relaxation. In addition to Temple Grandin’s research on “hug machines” for calming cattle, a study from Toho University in Japan found that medium pressure hugs had a significantly greater calming effect on babies than a light squeeze.

If “hold on tight” explains how to hug, “until you relax” instructs huggers how long they should hold on. Although the jury is still out on how long the “perfect hug” should last, it's recommended to hang on until the oxytocin floods one's body and one feels its calming effects.

The last ingredient for a hug, according to Forbes is “grow your bond.”  Hugging a stranger doesn’t have the same hormonal effect as hugging a loved one. So for maximum results, get your hug from someone you already have a bond with.

Lastly, although the Ruhr University Bochum study found that women may benefit the most from a loving squeeze, affectionate touch is an important component to any relationship.

So, before you head out the door to start your day, or set off home after a fun afternoon out, give a warm goodbye hug! 

Young granddaughter hugging her grandmother.

(fizkes /