Beat Stress with Hugs and Kisses

Affectionate Displays Linked to Lower Stress Levels

Hugs warm the heart. Have you been hugged today?

Stress is one a leading cause of rapid heart rate and high blood pressure, but studies show a hug a day could foster more healthful lives.

Time alone with your partner may enhance your relationship, say Ruth Adams and Charles Brisco of California, who have been married for more than a year. They, both divorced from previous spouses of more than 20 years, say their second chance at love revealed simple affectionate displays, such as kisses or hugs, can be key to health and longer lives.

“Both Charles and myself were in very stressful marriages with our ex-spouses,” Ruth, 49, said. For us, this relationship is very important because we talk a lot. But, more importantly, we listen to each other.”

“Over time, a romantic relationship helps to decrease health issues caused by stress and increase longevity,” said psychologist Elizabeth Sloan, founder of Caring Couples, a Maryland-based marriage and family counseling service near Washington.

Daily stressors, be they work or relationship troubles, can eventually yield classic stress outcomes: rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, etc. Other leading stress-induced problems are habits such as overeating and alcohol overconsumption, which respectively cause obesity and kidney disease.

Sometimes all we need is a little daily sweetness from a tender embrace or warm hug to reduce physical stress symptoms. The University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill medical school found in a study that hugging a romantic partner at least 10 minutes daily can greatly lower heart rate and blood pressure as it increases the hormone oxytocin, a relaxing agent active during labor and orgasms.

“I call it the “cuddle” hormone,” Sloane said. “It’s released during bonding and creates feelings of well-being for a person. If there is a lot of conflict in a relationship, it’s hard to receive this hormone.”

Chapel Hill researchers asked that two groups of married or cohabiting couples, each pair isolated from the others, sit close to their partners, touching and talking for 10 minutes before sharing a long hug. After, each couple’s blood pressure and heart rate levels dropped significantly as blood levels of oxytocin slightly increased.

Psychologists recommend spending the “magic five hours,” the alone-time ideal, each week with one’s partner. It’s important that couples have time to focus just on themselves, according to Sloane.

Good communication and strong intimate bonds between partners undoubtedly help create healthful, loving relationships. But this ideal may always seem to be forgotten at some point in a relationship. Couples who address problems finding time to talk reduce the physical impact of stress, said psychotherapist Jeffery Frank, of District Therapy in Washington.

Ruth recalls the health impact of marital stress. “My ex-husband and I had gotten to the point where we just didn’t talk. I would become nauseated and develop a headache at the thought of us fighting again. That’s how extreme it got between us.”

“I assume that couples already have an awareness to the things that cause stress,” Frank said about his counseling methods. “With that in mind, I try to focus on the things internally that couples unconsciously don’t realize may be causing problems.”

Frank and Sloan say that, based on their experience, the average couples seeking counseling are in their mid 30s.

At this age, couples are more secure and clear on what’s supporting their relationship and what they need from their spouses. As people age, it becomes more critical that they take care of the body because it’s more fragile, Frank said.