More Hugs, Less Stress: Can You Lower Cortisol With Self-Soothing And Touch?

Updated February 10, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Humans need touch to function. Without touch, we often don't feel safe or content. Touch—in the form of a hug, a handshake, cuddling, etc.— forms bonds between people, but it also has very real impacts on the brain and development. For example, studies show that, for children, touch from parents has a positive impact on growth and development.

Calm Anxiety With Self-Soothing Touch

The positive impacts of touch don't disappear as we get older. Even as adults, touch can aid digestion, control sleep, boost the immune system, and decrease stress.

Receiving massages has been associated with lower blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol levels, and anxiety. Additionally, receiving hugs regularly is associated with lower blood pressure and heart rate and corresponds with faster recovery times after being infected with a common cold.

We instinctually seek contact with others because our brain releases the hormone oxytocin when we engage in pleasant touch (like a hug). This makes us feel better, calming stress and lowering feelings of anxiety and fear. So, what happens when touch from others is unavailable or doesn't feel comfortable?

Self-Soothing To Lower Stress

Self-soothing touch is an alternative to touch from others as a means of stress relief. Though it doesn't provide the same benefits in the same way, it can be an effective way to support and calm yourself in times of stress. This method of self-soothing seems even more relevant now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic when people worldwide have to keep a distance from one another when sick or at risk. For some, a self-soothing touch may be the only option for stress relief.

Being in any stressful situation, from feeling judged to being in a fight with someone, can lead to changes in the brain and body. There is increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which results in increased fear-inducing responses from the amygdala and higher cortisol (stress hormone) levels. Additionally, cognitive abilities like memory can become impaired. Some stress is normal and even considered optimal for functioning at times, but too much stress has been proven time and time again to be detrimental.

As we know, touch from others can reduce stress in many ways. It communicates comfort and proximity, releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin, and generally makes people feel safe. But can self-soothing touch, where you comfort yourself through self-touch gestures, also decrease stress levels?

Research Into Self-Soothing Touch

A recent study exposed 159 participants (96 women, 62 men, and one non-binary person) aged 18–35 to a "standardized psychosocial stressor" to measure their stress responses. Some participants received a hug during the stressful event, and others were instructed to utilize a self-soothing touch. To measure stress responses throughout the study, participants provided salivary cortisol samples, wore an ECG to record their heart rate, and self-reported their stress levels and emotional states.

Researchers of the study proposed that, compared to the control group, those performing self-soothing touch gestures and receiving a hug would have reduced cortisol levels, lower heart rate, and more subdued emotional reactions to a stressor. 

Participants in the self-soothing touch group were instructed to give themselves 20 seconds of self-soothing touch to calm themselves. The duration was the same for participants who received a hug to make the two touch conditions comparable. Experts on self-soothing suggest that not all methods of self-touch are equally effective for all people, so individuals were shown different options for self-touch, such as placing a hand on the heart or rubbing one's arm. Ultimately, participants were encouraged to choose a method of self-touch that was comfortable for them. Most people chose to place their right hand on the left side of their chest and their left hand on their abdomen.

Researchers tested their hypotheses by repeatedly measuring cortisol levels, heart rate, and subjective-emotional stress evaluations before, during, and after the stressful situation.

Results Of The Study

The researchers' hypothesis that cortisol levels would be lower in those who received a hug and practiced self-soothing touch was proven correct. Comparing levels before and after the experiment, both groups had lower cortisol levels after receiving a hug or self-soothing touch.

Interestingly, heart rates and self-reported stress levels did not differ between the hugging group, the self-soothing touch group, and the control group. 

The results ultimately demonstrated:

  • Self-soothing touch gestures reduce cortisol responses to psychosocial stress.

  • Receiving hugs also reduces cortisol responses to psychosocial stress.

  • The benefits of receiving hugs are independent of social identification.

  • Self-soothing touch might reduce stress responses in times of limited social resources.

Self-Soothing Methods

It's important to remember that self-soothing touch is simply an expression of self-compassion. If you're not used to practicing self-soothing touch, you may think it sounds strange. But as the research shows, it can be an effective method for soothing anxiety and stress. You deserve to acknowledge the difficult and stressful feelings you're having, and a self-soothing touch can be used as a reliable coping mechanism. Self-touch may feel awkward at first, but your body doesn't know that. No matter how you feel psychologically, your body will likely respond to the physical gesture of warmth and care.

One method to try is simply putting your hand on your heart. If you feel stressed or worried, take a few deep, calming breaths, then place your hand over your heart. You will feel gentle pressure and warmth, and after about 20 seconds, you should feel less stress and anxiety. You may want to try putting both hands on your chest, noticing the sensations happening to you: the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe, the sound of the breath. You can sit with this feeling for as long as you'd like.

Hand-on-heart is just one method of self-soothing touch. Other people may be more comfortable gently stroking their arms or legs. Other options include:

  • One hand on your cheek

  • Cradling your face in your hands

  • Crossing your arms and giving yourself a hug

  • One or both hands on your abdomen

  • One hand on your abdomen and one over your heart

  • Cupping your hands together as if holding hands

As you find what works for you, you can develop the habit of calming self-touch. Giving yourself this kindness and comfort can be a simple stress-relief method.

Calm Anxiety With Self-Soothing Touch

Cultivating Self-Compassion With Online Therapy

Being touched by others is proven to improve stress coping ability. However, when touch from others is unavailable, feels uncomfortable, or is not safe (as is often the case in the COVID-19 pandemic), self-soothing touch may offer an alternative way to experience less distress and cultivate self-compassion.

Self-soothing touch is just one branch of self-compassion. Other components include accepting and forgiving yourself, being mindful, and generally regarding yourself with positivity and support. A recent study demonstrated that people experiencing stress, depression, and anxiety had significantly higher levels of happiness and self-compassion—and significantly reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression—following an online therapy program for self-compassion.

Many individuals have found strength and healing in online therapy. Online therapy can be just as effective as in-person therapy in treating anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues that may be causing undue stress.

While a therapist can't help you feel better by giving out hugs, they can certainly offer you the coping techniques you need to soothe yourself in times of distress. Whether you prefer online or in-person treatment, therapy can introduce you to new tools to feel better and be kinder to yourself.

Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp allow you to connect with a mental health professional without the added stress of commuting to an office for therapy or scheduling sessions months in advance. With BetterHelp, therapy is flexible and accessible, allowing you to easily schedule or modify appointments and participate via voice/video call, live chat, or messaging. A licensed BetterHelp therapist can help you live with less stress and more self-compassion.

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