Cuddles and kind words are the way to healthy hearts

Affectionate physical contact is better for a woman's health than whispering sweet nothings in her ear, according to new research. Men, on the other hand, are healthier when their partner says nice things to them.

The research shows that after being affectionately touched by the partners, women were far better able to deal with stress and had lower heart rates when they were stressed. The aim of this study, by researchers from the University of Zurich, and Emory University, Atlanta, was to see whether the behaviour of couples to each other affected how their bodies handled stress.

Sixty-seven women, aged 20 to 37 years, who had been married or cohabiting with a male partner for at least 12 months, were exposed to stress tests in the laboratory. One group had a 10-minute session of verbal social support with their partner prior to stress, another had no interaction, and the third had physical contact in the form of a neck and shoulder massage.

After the stress test, the saliva levels of the stress hormone cortisol, heart rate, and various psychological responses to stress were compared across the three groups. The results show that women with positive physical partner contact before stress had significantly lower cortisol and heart rate reactions when they were exposed to stress, compared to women who received verbal support or no interaction.

The researchers, who report their findings in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology this week, say: "We found that positive physical contact provided by the partner before stress significantly reduced subsequent salivary free cortisol responses to psychosocial stress in women. In addition, physical contact from the partner resulted in significantly reduced heart rate increase in response to stress, whereas verbal social support alone was not associated with reduced stress response."

They add: "Whereas men in contrast to women show immediate benefits from verbal social support by that partner, our findings in women suggest that not social support, but rather affectionate physical partner interaction markedly contributes to lower reactivity to stressful life events. Research on marital counselling and therapy should focus not only on risk factors such as hostility and conflict during couple interaction, but also carefully consider touch and various forms of support as potential mediators of the known health advantages attributable to close relationships."

Further reading: For more insights into the psychological benefits of cuddling, read The Second Little Book of Hugs, by Kathleen Keating, published by Harper Collins

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