According to scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, close physical contact during hugging involves a sense of social support, which protects stressed people from getting sick.
The study led by Sheldon Cohen, found that greater social support and more frequent hugs protected people from the increased susceptibility to infection associated with being stressed and resulted in less severe illness symptoms.
Cohen said that they know that people experiencing ongoing conflicts with others are less able to fight off cold viruses and they also know that people who report having social support are partly protected from the effects of stress on psychological states, such as depression and anxiety. They tested whether perceptions of social support are equally effective in protecting us from stress-induced susceptibility to infection and also whether receiving hugs might partially account for those feelings of support and themselves protect a person against infection.
The study approached 404 healthy adults and perceived support that was assessed by a questionnaire and frequencies of interpersonal conflicts and receiving hugs were derived from telephone interviews conducted on 14 consecutive evenings.
The results showed that perceived social support reduced the risk of infection associated with experiencing conflicts. Hugs were responsible for one-third of the protective effect of social support. Among infected participants, greater perceived social support and more frequent hugs both resulted in less severe illness symptoms whether or not they experienced conflicts.
Cohen said that this suggested that being hugged by a trusted person may acted as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress.