If you’ve ever gotten a hug and instantly felt better, that embrace might have been helping more than just your mood. According to new research from Carnegie Mellon University, a hug can actually boost the body’s ability to counter stress and fight off infection.
To conduct the study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers used a questionnaire to monitor the perceived social support in 404 adults’ lives, in addition to tracking the frequency of their interpersonal conflict by phone over the course of 14 consecutive days. At the same time, the scientists also measured the amount of hugs participants received over the course of the two weeks.
After 14 days of social-support assessments, the healthy participants were quarantined and intentionally exposed to the common cold virus. The researchers then watched for symptoms of illness, to see how well the men and women were able to fight off the infection.
Having the perception of social support from loved ones seemed to curb the risk of infection associated with stress, according to study author Denise Janicki-Deverts, Ph.D, a research psychologist at Carnegie Mellon. “We found that greater frequency of daily conflict was associated with increased risk of infection among people who perceived having low social support, but not among those perceiving higher amounts of support,” she tells Yahoo Health.
Furthermore, hugs had an impact similar to social support. They seemed to factor into the overall illness-buffering mechanism, accounting for 32 percent of social support’s protective benefit. In the participants, the greater support they felt and the more frequently they received hugs, the less severe their cold symptoms — whether or not they’d experienced significant conflicts over the prior two weeks.
What’s At Work Inside That Hug?
Lead researcher Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, has a guess. “There are two possibilities,” he tells Yahoo Health. “One is that hugs are a marker of intimacy and closeness of a person’s relationships and are just telling us that an individual has a strong supportive network. The other is that touch itself is beneficial and helps protect people in the face of stress.”
You probably already know that it’s easy to contract an illness when you’re totally stressed out. That’s because stress generates negative emotions, which are in turn associated with activation of the body’s biological stress system. “This stress system is intimately related to the immune system and the cardiovascular system,” says Janicki-Deverts. “Thus, stress has the potential to directly or indirectly influence diseases and conditions related to those systems.”
Create positive vibes, and you’ll be working against stress’s emotional toll. “We see hugs as a way of conveying care, concern and affection, likely to come from trusted others,” says Janicki-Deverts.
So, close relationships do seem to count when it comes to fighting off infection, and embraces from your loved ones plays a key role in countering the effects of an illness.
It’s time to tap your tightest network for a hug stat. It might be the easiest tip you come across for cold and flu season.