A hug is like a boomerang, you get it back right away, the American cartoonist Bil Keane observed.
But a new study has found that women get much more from cuddling than men – receiving a bigger stress-relieving boost – which perhaps helps explain male reticence when it comes to embracing a partner.
Researchers from Ruhr University Bochum, Germany, analysed 76 people in romantic relationships and measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol when they hugged briefly before taking part in a test designed to raise stress levels.
They found that women who hugged their partners had lower cortisol levels than women who did not.
It suggests that, for women, even a brief cuddle with a romantic partner before a stressful situation such as a job interview, presentation or an exam, could help to relieve stress.
But there was no change for men, suggesting cuddling does little to relieve their anxiety.
Writing in the journal Plos One, the researchers said: "We found a cortisol-buffering effect of embraces between romantic partners following a stress induction procedure.
"The effect was specific to women.
"This finding could have implications for stress reduction in everyday situations that often induce stress like exams, oral presentations or job interviews."
The power of touch is known to be important for humans, signalling safety and trust, and releasing the bonding hormone oxytocin. Psychologists have even coined the term "skin hunger" for when people lack the intimacy of close contact.
Previous research has shown that massages, embraces combined with hand-holding, and embraces combined with affectionate communication can all reduce signs of stress in women.
However, few studies have investigated these effects in men, nor have they explored the effects of brief embraces on their own.
In the new study, participants did a stress-inducing test in which they were asked to keep one hand in an ice-water bath for three minutes while being observed and maintaining eye contact with a camera.
Before the test, half of the couples were told to embrace. The others did not embrace.
The researchers suggest further study could investigate whether this benefit extends to embraces with platonic friends.
Hugging was effectively banned in Britain during Covid restrictions, with the country reduced to bumping elbows to show affection.
The authors also call for research into related effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, including whether social restrictions that reduced social touch may be associated with observed increases in stress and depression during the pandemic.
The authors added: "As a woman, hugging your romantic partner can prevent the acute stress response of your body."
Last year, researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, found that the perfect hug should last five to 10 seconds with criss-crossed arms. Hugs lasting for five seconds were said to give slightly less joy, and a one-second squeeze inspired the least happiness.
Hugs in which both participants criss-crossed their arms scored higher for arousal, while embraces in which one participant encircled the waist while the other reached to clutch the shoulders were rated slightly higher for pleasure.