As he tries to approach his father to confess that he had been living a lie, Raja’s anxiety is almost palpable. “Raja, why are you scared? Come here,” says his mother who then takes him into her arms and gives him a hug. This scene from Kamal Haasan’s Vasool Raja MBBS introduced us to ‘kattipudi vaithiyam’ or ‘hug therapy’, which we are told helps relieve stress. What if Vasool Raja had a point? Is there a science behind hugs? Can hugging someone one can help us reduce stress levels?
Scientists have long assumed that certain forms of touch aid in reducing stress levels in the body. So, before understanding if hugs can reduce stress, it is important to understand what stress is and how it physically affects the body.
When someone is under immense stress either emotionally, physically or psychologically, this causes what is called the “fight or flight” response in the body. This is the body’s normal reaction to any type of stress.
The hormone adrenaline is released from the body in an effort to essentially prepare the body to respond to the perceived threat (the stressor). Adrenaline increases the heart rate and blood pressure, it helps the lungs to expand allowing for more air to enter. It redistributes blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout the body in view of the increased stress levels, which are interpreted by the body as though it were expecting to fight off an attacker.
In addition to adrenaline, another hormone that is involved in the stress response is cortisol, which is released by the adrenal glands in the body. Cortisol plays a large role in the regulation of stress in the body. Elevated levels of cortisol will lead to metabolic disturbances, mood changes, impaired memory, and can also affect normal sleep and appetite cycles.
So now that we know what causes physical symptoms of stress, let’s take a look at how these symptoms are abated or reduced by giving or getting a hug.
Oxytocin: The “Stress Buster” Hormone
Now, there exists a hormone in our body that is dubbed as the ‘stress-buster’ hormone. This hormone primarily plays a large role in pregnancy, child labour and breastfeeding, but oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the ‘cuddle chemical’ as it is the one which is known to have a significant impact on human social behaviour.
Its release is controlled by what is called a “positive-feedback mechanism” wherein the initial release of the hormone might have had a particular stimulus, but the presence of the hormone is what continues to keep it in circulation in the body. This is a process that usually limits itself and is automatically controlled in the body.
Certain forms of touch can have a positive outcome on stress levels. For example, a supportive pat or an encouraging hug from a loved one can help ease stress by releasing oxytocin.
Several studies have shown that oxytocin is released in response to elevated cortisol levels. Oxytocin release and regulation in the body is controlled by a part of the brain called the hypothalamus which contains a gland called the pituitary gland that releases oxytocin.
Several studies have been done to show how the touch of a loved one such as a hug, can release ample amounts of oxytocin which helps to keep stress levels low.
One study, done at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, showed that frequent hugs also decreased the chances of an individual getting sick.
In another research done by researchers at Miami’s Touch Research Institute found that a hug or other affectionate gesture or touch from a loved one also contributes to pain relief.