Receiving a hug or engaging in self-soothing touch reduces cortisol levels following a stressful experience

A new study suggests that self-soothing touch, such as placing a hand over one’s heart, offers similar stress-reducing benefits to being hugged by another person. The study, published in Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology, revealed that both self-touch and receiving a hug from a stranger lowered cortisol levels after a stress induction.

The benefits of interpersonal touch have been widely reported. For example, being hugged or holding someone’s hand can lower blood pressure and instill a feeling of care and safety. But the benefits of self-touch gestures have been less explored.

“Touch is a powerful communicator of safety and inclusion and my colleagues and I wanted to see if being touched can help cope with stressful experiences even if people touch themselves,” said study author Aljoscha Dreisörner, a doctoral candidate at Goethe University Frankfurt.

“I teamed up with Beate Ditzen, PhD, who wrote a great article showing that women who were massaged by their partner had lower cortisol levels in a standardized stressful situation. Our research was a natural extension of this article. We wanted to show that self-soothing touch and being hugged can improve our ability to cope with stress.”

Dreisörner and his team noted that there are times when physical touch from others is either not feasible or impossible. A prime example is during the COVID-19 pandemic when curbing the spread of the virus means avoiding physical contact with others. The researchers proposed that self-touch gestures might serve as a coping strategy for stress that could replace touch from others. They conducted an experiment to explore the effects of self-touch versus receiving a hug following a stress induction.

Dreisörner and his colleagues recruited 159 adults with an average age of 21 to take part in the experiment. To explore whether social identity might moderate the impact of touch, participants were randomly assigned to undergo a manipulation that either emphasized their personal or their social identities. All participants then experienced a stress-induction where they were told they would need to prepare a speech about themselves and complete an arithmetic task. They were each given five minutes to prepare for the speech, which was then recited in front of a panel of confederate judges.

Before going in to give their speech, participants were either given a 20-second hug by a confederate (hug condition), told to give themselves 20 seconds of self-soothing touch to calm themselves down (self-touch condition), or told to build a paper plane (control condition). Participants in the self-touch condition were given examples of self-touch gestures, and nearly all participants chose to place one hand over their heart and one on their abdomen.

Throughout the experiment, all participants rated their stress levels and provided salivary cortisol samples at various time points. They also wore heart rate monitors to measure their heart rate.

In all conditions, participants’ cortisol levels increased with the stress induction. But at nearly all assessments, the cortisol levels were lower in the hug and self-touch conditions compared to the control condition. Only at the last measurement, which was taken 40 minutes after the stress-induction, were cortisol levels similar among participants in all three conditions. At this final time point, cortisol levels had dropped to nearly pre-stress levels. Neither heart rate nor self-reported stress differed by touch condition, and the researchers found no moderating effect for social identity.

“When babies are born, they first develop their sense of touch. As humans get older, they often forget how important it is to be touched,” Dreisörner said.

Interestingly, there was evidence of faster recovery to pre-stress cortisol levels among those in the self-touch condition. The authors say this finding has implications for people experiencing isolation. “When touch from others is unavailable or does not feel comfortable, self-soothing touch provides an alternative way to re-activate memories of support and compassion in the face of stress,” Dreisörner and his colleagues say, adding that this finding seems particularly pertinent to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I want people to take away two things from the study,” Dreisörner told PsyPost. “First, hugging and touching others is a way to help them deal with stressful situations better. For example, we might offer a hug or some other form of supportive touch to a child or loved one before they face a difficult situation (e.g. an exam, a job interview, a visit at the doctor’s office).”

“Second, people can receive the same benefits when they use soothing touch gestures on themselves. For example, people can place their right hand over their heart and their left hand on their belly and focus on the warmth and pressure of the touch. In fact, people touch themselves to regulate their emotions subconsciously all the time. Some readers may touch their face or hands at this very moment. We suggest that people use self-touch deliberately to cope with stress.”

The researchers suggest two processes that might be responsible for the stress-reducing effects of touch. One is that touch stimulates C-fiber receptors, nerve fibers “that then stimulate vagal and parasympathetic activity that helps regulate stress responses.” The other has to do with the psychological constructs that are activated by touch. Interpersonal touch elicits feelings of social support and belonging, and self-soothing touch might activate feelings of self-induced safety and mindfulness.

The authors note that the stress-reducing effect of hugs was weaker than reported in previous studies, which may be because the hugging in their study was received from strangers and not loved ones. This discrepancy is underscored by participants rating the self-touch experience as more pleasant than the hug experience. Nevertheless, the hugs were generally preferred to the control condition in which participants made paper planes.

The study, “Self-soothing touch and being hugged reduce cortisol responses to stress: A randomized controlled trial on stress, physical touch, and social identity”, was authored by Aljoscha Dreisörner, Nina M. Junker, Wolff Schlotz, Julia Heimrich, Svenja Blömeke, Beate Ditzen, and Rolf van Dick.

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