More Hugs, Less Stress: Can You Lower Cortisol With Self-Soothing And Touch?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
How do you comfort yourself with touch?
Comforting touch begins with recognizing when you need a mechanism to cope with something that causes panic and distress. It may be as simple as tracing gentle circles on your hand with your fingertip to crossing your arms and giving yourself a soothing hug.
Some examples of self-soothing touch include:
- Place a hand on your chest or abdomen and take a few deep, gentle breaths. Notice how your chest rises and falls with each breath.
- Place your palms on each cheek and cradle your face gently in your hands. You may stroke your cheek softly or trace the arch of your eyebrows with your fingertips.
- Stroke your inner arm(s) or inner wrist.
- Lightly trace circles on the palm of your hand.
- Cross your arms across your chest and give yourself a gentle hug.
What are self-soothing actions?
Self-soothing actions refer to activities and behaviors one may use to calm and control one's emotions during times of extreme distress. They are typically repetitive, and although self-soothing techniques are naturally learned early in infancy or childhood, they can also be used by adults.
What is the purpose of self-soothing?
Many people associate self-soothing with helping reduce crying and distress in infancy and childhood. However, adults can also use self-soothing activities to lessen the stress response when faced with overwhelmingly stressful and traumatic experiences in therapy or everyday life. For some, it serves as a self-induced safety mechanism against a perceived threat and helps control stress responses.
What does self-soothing look like?
Self-soothing isn't limited to physical touch; it can also include relaxing activities you can do to cultivate mindfulness and cognitive quieting. For example, meditation and guided visualizations on gentle kindness toward oneself and loving-kindness toward others can be a peaceful addition to your self-soothing "toolbox."
Why do I crave human touch?
You crave touch because humans (and other animals) are biologically designed to crave touch. Human touch through skin-to-skin contact is essential for development from birth, and that need doesn't cease as we age.
A recent study on touch deprivation demonstrates how "touch starvation" can harm our psychological well-being. In it, 120 adult students completed self-report measures of their loneliness and social support levels. The researchers found that individuals who expressed less social support and touch through self-report measures during the study were more likely to experience loneliness later.
Other research illustrates how human touch and self-touch alter our biochemistry at a base level to boost our mood.
One such randomized controlled trial measured how self-soothing touch and being hugged reduce cortisol responses in the brain when individuals were exposed to the Trier Social Stress Test. One hundred fifty-nine participants exposed to the stressor were assigned "personal" or "social" identity conditions and provided pre- and post-salivary samples to measure cortisol levels. The participant's heart rates were monitored with an ECG throughout the experiment.
Post-hoc contrast tests measured self-reported feedback using a subjective emotional response scale and cortisol levels of the participants after they received hugs or a self-soothing touch condition. The results showed that participants in both touch conditions had lower average cortisol values, heart rate, and self-reported stress. Further measurements revealed that self-reported stress and heart rate didn't change between touch nor identity conditions.
Why is touch so comforting?
Touch is comforting to humans because it shows us that we're loved and cared for—creating a sense of bond signaled by kinship. It improves stress coping and increases the production of oxytocin in the brain, triggering feelings of positivity and happiness while decreasing cortisol levels that create excessive stress.
How do I start self-soothing?
An excellent place to begin self-soothing is to take a little time to understand what you need and what works for you. Every person has a unique dispositional stress reactivity, and what works for someone else may not work for you. For example, some people find visualization or meditation to be worrying rather than soothing because they feel pressure to "do it right" or think of it as a task to accomplish. If this is the case for you, assistance from a counselor or therapist may help you understand the self-related psychological constructs of where your anxiety originates and what works best for you.
What are self-soothing gestures for adults?
Self-soothing gestures can be learned, but adults may also display self-soothing body language in stressful situations without realizing it. For example, if we feel anxious about speaking to someone, we may display a self-conscious affect by rubbing our hands together or stroking our brow. If we're sad, we might cover our face with our hands or cross our arms in a self-hugging stance.
How do I teach myself to self-soothe?
For many, self-soothing touch is learned from a parent or caregiver during childhood. For some, it is a skill they must learn on their own. Teaching yourself to self-soothe will likely involve trying different techniques before finding the best for you.
Take the time to sit quietly and note the impact that your touch has on your mood. Do you feel calmer with a self-hug than with fingertip circles on your palm? Is feeling the rise and fall of your breath soothing, or does it make you feel more anxious? If possible, try these self-awareness exercises during an emotionally neutral time to be prepared to use them during difficult or triggering circumstances.
Is hugging yourself self-soothing?
For many, self-hugging is extremely soothing. But again, some people may not find the sensation to be comforting. That's why it's important to try different techniques and find the form of tactile stimulation that works for you.
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