There are lots of good reasons to be in a relationship — companionship, support, and greater financial security to name a few. But what about a longer life? A study from Karen Grewen, assistant professor, and Kathleen Light, professor, both in the Department of Psychiatry, suggests that hugging your partner can reduce heart rate and blood pressure, both classic signs of stress. “Many episodes of stress over a lifetime are thought to contribute to increased disease risk,” Grewen says. So couples who enjoy more cuddling may have lower physiological stress responses, reducing their risk of heart and other diseases.
Two groups of married or cohabiting couples had baseline readings of their blood pressure and heart rate taken. Then the first group, “warm-contact,” sat together, touched, and talked about a positive experience they shared during their relationship. They then watched a five-minute segment from a romantic video. At the end they stood and hugged for twenty seconds. The other group, “no-contact,” rested quietly alone for ten minutes and thought about what they would do if they had the whole day to themselves. At the end they stood alone for twenty seconds without hugging. All subjects then talked for three minutes about a personal experience that caused them to feel anger or stress, while readings were taken of their blood pressure and heart rate. Results showed that the “warm-contact” group’s blood pressure and heart rate did not rise as much as the “no-contact” group.
This benefit was seen in both men and women. Unexpectedly, African Americans in the “warm-contact” group had a significantly lower increase in heart rate and blood pressure than whites. African Americans are at greater risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease than whites and tend to report more stressors in their daily life. “Warm physical and/or social contact may be especially beneficial in this high-risk group,” Grewen says.
The researchers also have an interest in understanding the stress hormones involved. They took blood samples from all the study participants and are analyzing the data. Meanwhile, it might be wise to assume that a hug from your partner might just be a lifesaver.