New research links embracing with better health outcomes.
Being hugged may help reduce the harmful effects of stress on the body, including those that make stressed-out people more susceptible to the common cold.
That is according to a recent study from Carnegie Mellon University, the latest evidence connecting positive relationships with improved physical health.
Relationships tightly linked to health
A strong body of scientific literature connects social ties and physical health. People who have large and diverse social networks have been shown to live longer than those with fewer ties. Regardless of the diversity of one’s network, strong social support is thought to outweigh the negative impact stress has on the body.
Scientists call this the “stress-buffering” effect.
“What that means is that if stress puts you at risk for disease, then having high levels of social support seems to protect people from that risk,” said Sheldon Cohen, a Carnegie Mellon psychologist and expert on relationships and health.
Studies have shown strong social support reduces the negative effect of stress on the cardiovascular system and immune function, and decreases the incidence of stress-related disease.
Much less is known, however, about how this kind of social support is conveyed and which words or actions are effective in buffering against stress.
In his recent study, published in the February edition of the journal Psychological Science, Cohen wanted to see if hugs were an effective way to show support.
As Cohen expected, the study found participants who experienced more social conflict were more likely to be infected after being exposed to a cold virus. But if study participants who had more social conflict also perceived more social support, that increase in infection risk was wiped out.
Cohen found that hugs were a main factor in that perceived social support.
“About a third of the people who are protected by social support are protected either because of the hugs, or because the hugs are an indicator of the intimacy of their social relationships,” Cohen said.
A second finding from the study surprised Cohen: when people were already infected with the cold virus, being hugged was correlated with fewer symptoms of illness, whether they had high levels of social conflict or not.
In other words, there could be some special ingredient in a hug that helps protect people from getting sick, apart from reducing stress.
Touch reduces stress
This experiment builds on evidence from a 2007 study led by Beate Ditzen, a medical psychology professor now at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. She studied the stress reactions of 75 women after mock job interviews and mental math tasks.
Compared to women who faced the test alone or received verbal support from their male partners, women who received a neck or shoulder massage before the stress test had lower heart rates and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that suppresses the immune system.
“[This] clearly suggests that physical touch can reduce the stress response, at least in romantic couples,” Ditzen said.
Relationships, can, of course, also be a major source of conflict and tension. Negative relationships provide the most potent kind of stress, and the health consequences that go along with it.
Relationships offer no easy fix
Managing both good and bad relationships is important for health, but University of Utah psychology professor Bert Uchino argues it is hard for primary care physicians to talk to their patients about this particular stressor.
“To a certain extent, I think some people view their relationships as being private,” Uchino said. “It’s difficult to tell people, ‘You should get rid of these certain relationships because they’re bad for you, and cultivate these other ones because they’re good for you.'”
Susanna Evans, a primary care physician with Drexel Family Medicine, agrees that conversations about relationships come up in office visits less frequently than other major predictors of health.
“I think right now there’s not as much focus,” Evans said. “We all are asking everybody every visit about smoking, [but] I think we’re getting to the point where we’ll start to think more about including that social piece as we sort of evolve these ideas.”
Already, Evans asks patients in her West Philly office about friends and family while taking an initial medical history and re-visits the topic if it becomes relevant. She gives an example of a patient who visited her office four times in less than three months with different ailments. The patient had just moved to Philadelphia from San Diego, where she had lived her whole life.
“After a while we really got to talking about the fact that probably a lot of this was stemming out of her feeling alone here in Philadelphia and still trying to make the transition,” Evans said.
In addition to treating each illness, Evans talked with the patient about how to make new friends in Philadelphia and eventually recommended her patient join a running club.
Sheldon Cohen believes physicians like Evans, those who ask their patients about friends and family, are rare, perhaps largely because the fix for loneliness or a stressful relationship can’t be written on a prescription pad.
“It may be fair that we don’t see that much because we don’t yet have a good enough understanding of how to intervene to change these things,” Cohen said.
That’s why Cohen is studying hugs: he’s searching for simple recommendations doctors can give their patients to strengthen good relationships and keep stressful ones in check.