Hugging loved ones can reduce stress and lower blood pressure02/02/2013 02:26
Almost everyone loves to be hugged - even those that pretend they don't. Hugging is an immediate way for us to bond with loved ones, and virtually every culture on Earth appreciates the feelings of well-being that arise from a warm physical embrace. According to a new study by scientists at the University of Vienna; however, hugs also have a positive effect on our long-term health - in fact, regularly embracing our loved ones can even lower our blood pressure and stress levels.
The Austrian scientists discovered that the important hormone, oxytocin, was secreted into the bloodstream when a person hugged, or was hugged by, a trusted person. Oxytocin is produced by the pituitary gland, and its release can lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and improve our memory. Usually, the pituitary gland secretes oxytocin during times of intense bonding, such as when a mother is breastfeeding her child or when we are comforting our spouse.
Personal boundaries need to be respected
However, the scientists' findings were not one-dimensional. While embraces between loved ones increased oxytocin secretions into the bloodstream, embraces between strangers had the opposite effect.
"The positive effect only occurs [...] if the people trust each other, if the associated feelings are present mutually, and if the corresponding signals are sent out," said neurophysiologist and study leader, Jurgen Sandkuhler. "If people do not know each other, or if the hug is not desired by both parties, its effects are lost."
According to Sandkuler, this happens because oxytocin isn't released into the bloodstream if the hug is unwanted, or from a stranger. In fact, the adrenal-cortex 'stress' hormone, cortisol, is released instead.
"[Hugs by strangers] can lead to pure stress because our normal distance-keeping behaviour is disregarded. In these situations, we secrete the stress hormone cortisol," said Sandkuhler. "Hugging is good, but no matter how long or how often someone hugs, it is trust that's more important."
Sandkuhler now cautions people from hugging strangers, and encourages them to respect other people's private boundaries. He also discourages people from partaking in the Free Hugs Campaign, a growing social movement in the West that promotes the hugging of strangers on high streets and other public spaces.
"This violation of our normal distance-keeping behaviour is [...] generally perceived as disconcerting or even as threatening," he added.
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About the author:
Michael Ravensthorpe is an independent writer from the United Kingdom whose research interests include nutrition, alternative medicine, and bushcraft. He is the creator of the website Spiritfoods, through which he helps to promote the world's healthiest foods, whether they be established superfruits such as mangosteen or lesser-known health supplements like blackstrap molasses.
Michael is also the creator of the companion site Spiritcures, which details his research into the best home remedies for common medical conditions such as urinary tract infections.