Hugs affect women and men differently

They can give closeness and comfort, and be a sign of affection and love: hugs. It has long been known how important a hug is in personal relationships and what positive effects it can have on health. A research team from Ruhr University Bochum discovered that hugs can have different effects depending on gender. For women, even a short hug from their partner seems to relieve physical stress. This is not the case for men who cuddle with their partner, the researchers wrote in the journal PLOS ONE.

The skin is the largest organ in the body and houses a network of sensory cells that record every touch. Previous studies have shown that hugs not only increase subjective well-being, but can also lower blood pressure or even help fight viral diseases more quickly.

In women, a 10-minute massage and a combination of hugging and loving contact appears to reduce signs of stress, says PLOS ONE. The Bochum research team, led by biological psychologist Jessa Peretz, wanted to find out if this was also the case for men and if a short hug could also achieve the same positive effects.

Cold test with 76 participants

To study the effects of hugs, Peretz and her team performed a stress test on 76 people. 40 of the participants were female, 36 were male, and the average age was about 22 years. They were all in a romantic heterosexual relationship, although the researchers did not exclude people of other sexual orientation. Relevant subject partners were invited to trial.

The health of the 76 people was also examined. None of them had a mental or neurodevelopmental disorder, and none of them smoked or took medication. The researchers took the pill as a hormonal method of contraception into consideration in the analyses. Participants were, on average, heavy or slightly overweight.

There is good evidence that women find social touch more comfortable than men in general.

Julian Packheiser, co-author and biological psychologist at Ruhr University Bochum

They were randomly divided into two groups: half were allowed to hug their partner for 20 seconds immediately before the stress test, while the other half were not. The researchers also measured “relationship satisfaction” with a point system in the two test groups and found no difference – not even between women and men.

Whether it’s a greeting, a goodbye, or just because: Hugs are healthy – not just for the psyche.
© Getty Images / Tetra Images RF

And this is how the stress test was done: participants were asked to dip their hands in ice water for a maximum of three minutes – an extremely painful experience. If they couldn’t stand any more, they were allowed to get their hands out again before the time was up. During the cold experiment, the subjects had to maintain eye contact with the camera and were not allowed to talk to each other.

Before, during and after the experiment — which was conducted between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. to rule out possible fluctuations in hormone levels — the scientists examined various stress indicators. This included blood pressure and measuring the level of cortisol using a sample of saliva – an endogenous hormone that is increasingly released in stressful situations. After the test, the subjects had to indicate on a scale of 0 to 100 how difficult, painful, stressful, and uncomfortable the cold test was for them.

Women release less cortisol

The result: A significantly lower cortisol value was found in women who had hugged their partner before the cold test compared to women who had not hugged their partner before. This effect cannot be observed in men, the researchers wrote in PLOS ONE. Also, the relationship between hugs and blood pressure and feelings of tension has not been proven – neither in women nor in men.

“We were surprised to find no effects on subjective perception of stress,” says co-author and researcher Julian Packheiser in the Department of Biopsychology at Ruhr University Bochum. Therefore, the effect is purely physiological and is not directly related to the feelings of the participants. “One reason for this may be the pain component of stress, which simply overwhelmed the subjective feeling.”

Two theories of gender differences

Buckheiser and colleagues have two theories as to why there are differences between the sexes: “On the one hand, there is good evidence that women generally find socializing more enjoyable than men,” he says. This was demonstrated, among other things, by a study of 28 participants published in Experimental Brain Research. The positive sense of touch is related to the release of the hormone oxytocin in the body. Oxytocin is also known as the bonding hormone, and it not only enhances social relationships, but also reduces the concentration of cortisol, so it has a stress-relieving effect. Oxytocin and other hormones such as endorphins, which relieve pain and have a calming effect, among other things, have not been measured by the Bochum researchers.

“Another explanation is the so-called liking-friendship hypothesis,” continues the biological psychologist. Geht es nach diesem Verhaltensmerkmal, kümmern sich Frauen in Stresssituationen stärker um den Nachwuchs und enge Vertraute („tend” = sich kümmern) und schließen sich mit ihnen zusammen, schwerkaffen „Net libis also seunfriend ein” to exist. This, in turn, can reduce their stress reactions. Buckheiser says that the study partner’s “caring”, and specifically their hugs, could have reduced one’s stress.

Same effect with platonic friendships?

In another study, scientists want to know if a hug distance It can achieve similar effects in stressful situations. This is important because people often look for support after stress. “We’ll also look at the question of what kind of hug is, because there’s actually very little research on that,” Buckheiser said. The test group received no instructions on how to hug their partner, for example tightly or loosely, with their arms around their necks or waists.

Other work has also shown that intimacy in a relationship plays an important role in relieving stress. The researchers also want to investigate this and, among other things, measure the effect of hugs on platonic friendships, that is, between people who have a close relationship but have no sexual interest in each other.

According to the research team, the findings can already be put into practice: a woman can hug her partner for a while before stressful situations such as a university exam, job interview or presentation. Is this realistic?

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