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  • Writer's pictureNancy Griffin

Hugs Can Relieve Pain, Anxiety, and Depression, New Study Finds

Touch administered by objects such as social robots, stuffed animals, and body pillows also showed a measurable positive effect, albeit less pronounced than human touch.


A recent study conducted by researchers from Ruhr University Bochum, Duisburg-Essen, and Amsterdam set out to answer how much touch do we need, and from whom. By analyzing over 130 international studies involving approximately 10,000 participants, the study shed light on the benefits of touch and its potential applications. The findings are published in the journal Nature Human Behavior,

 

Dr. Julian Packheiser, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at Ruhr University Bochum, explains the motivation behind the study: "We were aware of the importance of touch as a health intervention, but despite many studies, it remained unclear how to use it optimally, what effects can be expected specifically, and what the influencing factors are."

 

The study revealed that touch can have profound effects on both infants and adults. In the case of infants, parental touch was found to be particularly effective.

 

Dr. Helena Hartmann, from the University of Duisburg-Essen, emphasizes, "It's important that it is the parents who administer the touch; their touch is more effective than that of a care professional." However, for adults, whether the touch came from familiar individuals or nursing professionals made no significant difference.

 

Touch was found to have a substantial impact on mental well-being, with reductions in pain, depression, and anxiety reported across numerous studies. Physical touch, such as hugging, promotes the release of oxytocin, often called the "bonding hormone," which enhances feelings of connection and reduces stress. Physical touch can improve overall emotional well-being by lowering levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and increasing feelings of happiness and relaxation​. Additionally, touch showed positive effects on cardiovascular factors such as blood pressure and heart rate, although to a lesser extent.

 

Contrary to the belief that longer duration of touch yields better results, the study found that shorter but more frequent touching was more beneficial. Dr. Packheiser notes, "It's not true that the longer the touch, the better.

 

Even a brief hug has a positive impact." Surprisingly, touch administered by objects such as social robots, stuffed animals, and body pillows also showed a measurable positive effect, albeit less pronounced than human touch.


"This led us to the conclusion that consensual touch improves the well-being of patients in clinical scenarios and healthy people alike," says Dr. Packheiser. "So, if you feel like hugging family or friends – don't hold back, as long as the other person gives their consent."


However, despite these promising findings, many questions remain unanswered. The quality of touch and its specific effects on individuals are areas that require further investigation.

 

Moreover, the distinction between affective touch and instrumental touch, such as medical examinations or hairdressing, needs clarification. The role of touching animals and cultural differences in the perception of touch also warrant deeper exploration.

 

The study highlights the therapeutic potential of touch in improving both physical and mental well-being. From infants receiving comforting hugs from parents to adults benefiting from brief moments of connection, touch has the power to heal.

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