The last thing most people want to do during a heated argument is engage in a loving, warm embrace with their opponent. New research, however, suggests that it’s just what we need during a moment of conflict.
The new study, published in the journal PLOS One, found hugging can enormously soften the mood changes associated with fighting. Researchers interviewed 404 adults every night for two weeks about their conflicts, their mood, and the hugs they’d received that day. The study found those who’d received hugs on the same day as a conflict didn’t have their positive emotions dampened as much by the fight, and the bad emotions stirred up were less intense. In other words, that personal touch doesn’t just temporarily mask the conflict or sweep it under the rug—it actually lowered the negativity surrounding the situation.
For years, scientists have been studying the importance of interpersonal touch—that is, platonic, nonsexual moments between any two individuals. Past studies have found individuals who engage more frequently in interpersonal touch enjoy better physical, psychological, and relational health. People even experience reduced cardiovascular activity and cortisol secretion when engaging in interpersonal touch during stressful times, the paper explains. Thus, the touch becomes a “stress buffer” from more serious interpersonal issues arising. The present findings further suggest that hugs specifically can help solve disputes and even relieve the stress that typically manifests because of them.
“The biologic and physiologic effects of human touch can be so profound that many integrative physicians include ‘therapeutic touch’ or ‘healing touch’ as part of their care for patients,” integrative neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., tells us. “The physiologic changes that accompany the human touch are thought to be related to an exchange of energy in the form of electrons.”
But the hug isn’t only about the physical feeling of touch, the authors note. It’s about the perception of the act—the tangible, emotional support that the hug represents. The mere notion of this support can be strong enough to change the nature of an argument or turn it on its head completely.
“Hugging helps to develop closeness, trust, and foster a sense of mutual understanding and caring,” says Dr. Ruhoy, who herself makes a habit of hugging her patients to establish a strong connection with them. “The act of hugging also releases oxytocin stored in the pituitary gland, which is often affectionately referred to as the ‘love hormone’ because it helps us bond with our newborns. That feeling of love, familiarity, and fellowship is why we have the instinct to hug our children, our parents, and our friends.”
The hug may not be a permanent solution to every conflict, but it’s certainly a practice everyone can implement in order to take control of a tense situation.