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For stress relief, research says: ‘Hug it out'

File photo (iStock/PeopleImages)

Jan. 21 is National Hugging Day. While most have heard the expression "hug it out," hugs can actually help us reduce stress, according to one recent study.

The study looked at 404 adults, both men and women, over 14 days.

Researchers found that especially when a person reported having some sort of conflict or negative event during their day, a hug was associated with less negative emotions.

The effect was the same for both men and women.

“If you received a hug on a day that you had experienced some interpersonal conflict, the hug was actually a modifier of the stress response -- meaning you had less of an increase in negative emotion and less of a decrease in positive sentiment, if you got a simple hug,” said Cleveland Clinic’s Scott Bea, Psy.D., who did not take part in the research. 

Bea said a hug is a supportive behavior that we naturally do to comfort one another.

He said hugs can be especially comforting in today’s society when so much of our communication is done electronically. 

“We’ve never been more ‘over-connected’ yet more apart,” Bea said. “We don’t always meet each other face to face, and these hug studies really tell us how powerful the effect of hugs are.”

He said other studies suggest the longer the duration of the hug, the better, and people should aim for a 20-second hug.

Bea said within that 20 seconds, there is a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol.

“I think the longer the hug lasts, the more our thoughts wind down,” Bea said. “Because we could be hugging, but overthinking and not noticing the hug; and I think if we hang on just a little bit longer, some of that thinking goes down and we actually start to feel the presence of the human being in front of us.” 

Complete results of the study can be found in PLOS ONE.