By Traci Pedersen
It’s cold and flu season again — make sure you get plenty of sleep, take some extra vitamin C and… hug each other a little more. Yes, that’s right. A new study reveals that frequent hugging lowers your chances of becoming ill during times of stress.
Prior research has found that high levels of stress can weaken the immune system, making us more susceptible to illness and infection. On the other hand, science has also shown that individuals with a strong social support system tend to enjoy a protective ‘buffer’ against greater levels of stress.
In a new study, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University decided to test this information a little further. They wanted to see whether hugs could act as a type of social support and, in turn, protect people from getting sick while under stress.
“We know that people experiencing ongoing conflicts with others are less able to fight off cold viruses. We also know that people who report having social support are partly protected from the effects of stress on psychological states, such as depression and anxiety,” said psychology professor Sheldon Cohen.
“We tested whether perceptions of social support are equally effective in protecting us from stress-induced susceptibility to infection and also whether receiving hugs might partially account for those feelings of support and themselves protect a person against infection.”
For the study, 404 healthy adults completed a questionnaire asking about their perceived levels of social support. They also took part in telephone interviews for 14 consecutive days, reporting on how many conflicts they had experienced that day as well as how many hugs. Finally, the participants agreed to be given nasal drops containing a common cold virus. They were then monitored in quarantine to see if they developed any signs of illness or infection.
Overall, those with the strongest feelings of social support had a decreased risk for developing an infection while under stress. Hugs accounted for one-third of the protective effect of this social support. Among the participants who did become ill, those with greater perceived social support and those who’d received more hugs had less severe cold symptoms, whether or not they had experienced stress-inducing conflicts.
“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. Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat protected from infection and illness-related symptoms,” said Cohen.
The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.