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Content archived on 2023-03-23

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Trending science: Can hugs buffer stress and protect against illness?

A new study has revealed that social support and hugging may help protect us against illness.

Hopefully, we have all been fortunate enough to feel the benefit of a hug or a display of support in times of need. We may have had the impression these gestures alleviated our stress levels. However, is there any scientific basis for this impression? And by affecting our stress levels, do such social support and hugging thus affect our health? A study, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that they do. The aim of the study, carried out by teams in Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in the United States, was to examine the roles of perceived social support and received hugs in buffering against interpersonal stress-induced susceptibility to infectious disease. The study team used a sample of over 400 adults, and results revealed that among participants infected with a common cold virus, greater perceived support and more-frequent hugs both predicted less-severe illness signs. The team used a questionnaire to explore how the participants perceived the level of social support that they received, and evening telephone interviews over two weeks to assess daily interpersonal conflict and receipt of hugs. The team then exposed participants to a virus that causes a common cold and monitored them in quarantine to assess infection and illness signs. Study results show that perceived support protected against the rise in infection risk associated with increasing frequency of conflict. According to the study Abstract, a similar stress-buffering effect emerged for hugging, which explained 32 % of the attenuating effect of support. Overall, greater perceived support and more-frequent hugs each predicted less-severe illness signs. According to the researchers, these data suggest that hugging may effectively convey social support. Scientific American notes some other encouraging findings from the study, namely, participants overall had a strong sense of social support, as shown by a high median score on the questionnaire, and they were more likely to be hugged than to experience conflict. However, if greater perceived support and more-frequent hugs each predicted less-severe illness signs, what happens if support and hugs are absent from our lives? Sadly, that’s the ‘flip side’, as Scientific American notes: ‘Loneliness and having a small social network correspond with a lower antibody response to the influenza vaccine, compared to feeling a strong sense of social connection. Socially isolated patients with coronary artery disease have lower survival rates than socially connected patients, even after controlling for demographics, disease severity, and psychological distress.’ For further information, please visit: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/26/2/135

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