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

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant
Updated February 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

It has been scientifically proven that humans need touch to function. Without touch, many people don't feel safe or content. Touch—in the form of a hug, a handshake, cuddling, and other physical activities—forms bonds between people that have real impacts on the brain and one's neurodevelopment. For example, studies show that, for children, touch from parents can positively impact development. 

Calm anxiety with self-soothing touch

Why do humans need touch? 

The positive impacts of touch don't disappear in adults. 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 corresponds with faster recovery after being infected with a common cold.

Humans instinctually seek contact with others because the brain releases oxytocin when you engage in pleasant touches, like hugging or cuddling. For this reason, people may feel an instant stress reduction when held or touched by others. When touch isn't available, it can cause various mental and physical health challenges. 

What do you do if you don't have someone to hug? 

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 may be beneficial if you're immunocompromised and impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, a self-soothing touch may be the only option for stress relief in the short term.

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 can be considered optimal for functioning when required. However, chronic stress is detrimental. Touch from others communicates comfort and proximity, releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin, and can make people feel safe. However, there may be less research on how self-soothing touch impacts individuals. 

Research on self-soothing touch

A recent study exposed 159 participants (96 women, 62 men, and one non-binary person) aged 18 to 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 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 theorized 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 suggested that not all methods of self-touch would be 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.

Getty/MoMo Productions

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.

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

However, 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

Self-soothing touch is an expression of self-compassion. If you're not used to practicing self-soothing touch, you might feel strange doing it. However, as the research shows, it can be an effective method for self-soothing when you don't have others in your life to touch. No matter how you feel psychologically, your body may respond positively to the physical gesture of warmth and care.

One way to try self-soothing touch is by 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 may feel gentle pressure and warmth; after about 20 seconds, you may notice some stress or anxiety subsiding. Try putting both hands on your chest, noticing the sensations of the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe and the sound of your breath. You can sit with this feeling for as long as you'd like.

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

  • Putting one hand on your cheek
  • Cradling your face in your hands
  • Crossing your arms and giving yourself a hug
  • Putting one or both hands on your abdomen
  • Putting one hand on your abdomen and one over your heart
  • Cupping your hands together as if holding hands
  • Rubbing your feet together 

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 quick stress-relief method.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Calm anxiety with self-soothing touch

Professional support 

Being touched by others can improve your ability to cope with stress. However, when touch from others is unavailable, uncomfortable, or unsafe, self-soothing touch may offer an alternative way to experience less distress and cultivate self-compassion. Self-soothing touch is a branch of self-compassion. Other components include accepting and forgiving yourself, being mindful, and regarding yourself with positivity and support. To gain insight into these coping mechanisms, reaching out for support from a therapist knowledgeable about self-care may be beneficial. 

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

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 online therapy, you can have flexible and accessible treatment, allowing you to easily schedule or modify appointments and participate via phone, video, or chat sessions. 

Takeaway

Touch is often considered a core need for humans. Not having touch in your life may lead to loneliness, health challenges, or depression. If you're experiencing these symptoms, you might benefit from self-touch alongside the care of a licensed mental health professional. You're not alone, and support is available.

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