While some people thrive on conflict, for most, conflicts in our relationships are not fun, whether they involve friends, co-workers, a spouse or extended family members. And more than being incredibly uncomfortable, stress from conflicts can lead to psychiatric and physical illnesses.
While conflicts can leave us feeling uneasy, they’re a part of life and necessary at times when our boundaries are being violated. So how can we go about engaging in conflicts in a way that doesn't compromise our mental and physical health?
A new study recently published in the Public Library of Science seems to have found the answer: Hugs. Researchers found that people experiencing relationship conflicts that receive hugs suffer less distress than those that don’t.
The study, titled: Receiving a hug is associated with the attenuation of negative mood that occurs on days with interpersonal conflict, was authored by Denise Janicki-Deverts, Sheldon Cohen and Michael L. M. Murphy. Murphy is a post-doctoral research associate at the Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity, and Disease in the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
“We studied whether receiving a hug buffers against the psychological distress related to conflict within relationships,” Murphy told us. “We hypothesized that hug receipt should protect against distressing changes in both positive and negative emotions related to experiencing relationship conflict. We also wanted to clarify whether hugs mattered more for women or men, or if hugs were equally protective for women and men.”
Murphy says he chose this project because there are two somewhat paradoxical findings in the literature on how social support impacts psychological stress.
“One the one hand, individuals who report perceiving the availability of a network of supportive individuals tend to show better adaptation to stress,” Murphy told us. “On the other hand, individuals who report actually receiving support during stress tend to not show better adaptation to stress.”
Some researchers have argued that many of the behaviors we use to support others who are stressed might actually be counterproductive because these behaviors communicate to others that they are incompetent to manage stress. In theory, then, behaviors that can convey our care and empathy to an individual without also conveying that they are incompetent should most effectively increase perceptions of support and improve adaptation to stress.
“Hugging is one such behavior that is simple to implement and that prior evidence has shown can effectively convey support," Murphy told us, "so we wanted to know whether hugging would be protective in the face of interpersonally stressful experiences."
Researchers analyzed data obtained from 404 adult men and women who were interviewed over the telephone each night for 14 consecutive days. During these interviews, the participants were asked if somebody had hugged them that day and whether they had experienced conflict or tension with somebody that day. Participants were also asked other questions about the number of social interactions they had engaged in that day as well as about negative and positive mood states.
“We already knew from previous research that experiencing relationship conflict is distressing and we replicated that finding in our study,” Murphy told us. “The major novel contribution of our study was showing that hugs are associated with less distress stemming from relationship conflict, and that the link between hugs and decreased conflict-related distress appears to be the same for both women and men.”
The results were in line with what researchers had hypothesized. They weren’t surprised to find that people who reported receiving a hug appeared to be buffered against poorer moods related to experiencing conflict. This finding is consistent with multiple emerging lines of evidence demonstrating the ability of touch-behaviors within close relationships to reduce perceptions of threat and increase feelings of security and wellbeing.
“We were, however, at least somewhat surprised to find that there were no detectable differences between women and men in our study in the extent to which hugs buffered against conflict-related negative mood,” Murphy told us. “This was somewhat surprising for two reasons."
The first reason is that much of the previous literature examining the benefits of interpersonal touch has focused exclusively on women, suggesting at the very least an implicit assumption in the field that women should benefit more from these behaviors than men.
The second reason is that both in previous studies as well as in Murphy's study, women’s moods were more strongly related to conflict than men’s moods, suggesting that there may be more room for hugs to be able to impact mood among women.
"However, we did not find evidence for this," Murphy told us. "Instead, hugs appeared to buffer against conflict-related changes in mood equally for women and men.”
Murphy thinks the results from the study are interesting because they suggest that hugging may be a simple yet effective way to support individuals undergoing relationship conflict. That being said, the research is still in its preliminary stages, and a number of important, basic questions persist. For example, is the timing of hugs relative to conflict important? Does who provides the hug matter? Does it matter if hugs are offered in direct response to conflict or independent of conflict?
“We are currently working on a project that should offer some answers to these questions,” Murphy told us. “Until then, I would interpret the findings from our study as providing preliminary, correlational evidence that consensual hugs may an easy-to-implement way to provide support to both men and women who are experiencing conflict in their relationships.”
In addition, Murphy points out that the study did not address whether there might be some people for whom hugs are distressing or if responses to hugs vary depending on who the hug is from.
“Thus, our findings should not be taken as evidence to just start hugging anyone who seems distressed regardless of who they are,” Murphy told us. “For example, while a hug from one’s spouse might be viewed as both consensual and positive, a hug from one’s boss might be viewed as neither consensual nor positive.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com