New Research Shows That Hugs Reduce Stress

Stress Study: Hugs warm the heart, and may protect it

By Marilyn Elias, USA TODAY

PHOENIX — Cuddling may be good medicine for the heart. Loving contact before a tough day at work "could carry over and protect you throughout the day." By Rick Rycroft, AP

A brief hug and 10 minutes of handholding with a romantic partner greatly reduce the harmful physical effects of stress, according to a study reported over the weekend at the American Psychosomatic Society meeting here. (Related item: Worry, inactivity impede sleep's health benefits)

While I was teaching body language and nonverbal communication at Florida State University, students coming up to me before and after class or running into me on campus would inevitably open their arms to receive a big hug. In fact, though I didn’t have my PHD my students called me Dr. Hugs. Year after year, the student’s favorite lectures were the two touch lectures where I shared the research on the benefits of touch. But now that I think of it, professional people who attended my speeches and training would recognize me in a restaurant or the grocery store checkout line and also typically meet me with a warm and friendly hug.

A hug fully breaks the intimate zone boundaries of the body while other greetings, from the handshake to the bow to the upheld palms high-five are designed to keep people apart outside the intimate zero to fourteen-inch zone. A hug is a greeting of friend-to-friend.

The Origin of the Hug You may think of the hug as only a touchy-feely greeting. It may surprise you to learn that the hug actually originated in Egypt as a way for men meeting strangers to check for swords hidden under their long robes. It continues in modern day as a “Let me pat you down” weapons check in many Arab greetings.

It is only in the last century that the full frontal hug has morphed into the embrace showing warmth and affection. This full face-to-face hug shows others that we trust them and are willing to give them ready and full access to our vulnerable heart.

While people are avoiding handshakes, hugging seems to be increasing in popularity. Some researchers say the increase came after the tragedy of 9/11 as the need for comfort and bonding increased. Others say the change to casual dress in corporate America has brought a desire for a more casual greeting ritual. My high school and college audiences shared with me that hugging makes them feel accepted and loved by their friends in a way they don’t feel with their parents. My principal and schoolteacher audiences shared they believe the increase is due to the two-parent working families. Kids hug each other so they can get the healthy touch they are missing out on at home. Perhaps it is that there is not a real increase in hugs, but a decrease in hugs in the general population that make us NOTICE hugs more.

I remember fondly the warm, full heart-to-heart hugs shared with my fellow church group members when I was in high school. Even then, we wanted and were open to more love.

As the handshake seems to be lessening as the greeting ritual in corporate offices in the US, hugging seems to be increasing in use in social situations. At the end of 2009, Michelle Obama gave Queen Elizabeth a hug at Buckingham Palace. This lack of formality broke royal protocol. The Guardian (UK) newspaper, reporting on the incident, noted that “…. (There have been) only four other people who haven’t gone to the tower for ... (this breach) of protocol.” Queen Elizabeth was a bit surprised and it was a bit awkward. At first, she showed delayed acceptance of this change by also breaking protocol and reaching her arm around Mrs. Obama’s back to return the favor.

Patti Wood, MA, Certified Speaking Professional - The Body Language Expert. For more body language insights go to her website at Also check out the body language quiz on her YouTube Channel at