Love can make us feel stressed out and stress free. Time seems to be the key factor. The first moments of falling love can be delightful and stressful in the same moment. It can even keep us up at night and make it difficult to concentrate.
A recent study shows that those who were newly in love had higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, then those who were in long-term relationships. But good news follows. After 12 to 24 months, the couples’ stress hormone level returned to normal and the physical, emotional and mental benefits of being in love can remain, including the release of positive stress-protective hormones.
Research shows that when you love someone, there is more activity in the “reward” system of your brain. A rise in “feel good” hormones, like dopamine, can give us focus, energy and optimism. And while sex with the right person can have multiple health benefits, simple touching, kissing, holding hands or even looking at your loved one can improve your health and relationship.
Whether you’re a touchy-feely person or not, there are multiple reasons to be more physically affectionate in close relationships. Recent studies show physical signs of affection can have these effects:
1. Physical affection releases feel-good hormones and lower stress hormones. One of the reasons why hugging, holding hands and touching feel good to us is that these behaviors elevate our level of oxytocin, a hormone that reduces pain and causes a calming sensation and lower cortisol. A simple embrace seems to increase levels of this “love hormone,” which has been linked to social bonding, and increased trust and empathy.
2. Physical affection is related to lower blood pressure. Among women, those who receive more hugs from their romantic partners have lower resting blood pressure. Giving a hug can boost your heart health and that of your partner.
3. Physical affection is associated with higher relationship satisfaction. Partners are more satisfied with their relationships the more physically affectionate they are with each other.
4. Physical affection today puts you in a better mood today and tomorrow. The benefits of physical affection aren’t confined to the moment. A brief hug and 10 minutes of hand holding with a romantic partner greatly reduces the harmful effects of stress and can carry over and protect you throughout the day. For women, engaging in physical affection with a loved one predicts an increase in positive mood the following day.
5. Cuddling counts too. Call it an extended hug. Cuddling also releases stress-easing oxytocin that can reduce blood pressure and bond you with your mate. A little cuddle time has also been shown to help partners communicate better. Non-verbal communication can be a very powerful way to say to your partner, “I understand you. I know how you feel.” A simple cuddle can allows us to feel known by our partner in a way words can’t convey.
While the physical stress relief from contact with a romantic partner may be stronger, some studies indicate that touch among friends is also helpful. Reports also show that signs of love and affection aren’t just for the young. The older you are, the more physical affection becomes increasingly important to maintain good health.
Physical signs of affection are valuable in parenting, as well. Giving hugs in good times and difficult ones shows your love isn’t conditional on behavior. It’s easy to be affectionate when everything is going well and kids do what you want them to, but giving them hugs after an argument can be even more powerful. Of course, it works the same for romantic partners. Every day isn’t going to be perfect, but every day couples can demonstrate love and affection.
With loved ones, physical affection increases relationship quality, physical health and mental well-being. This Valentine’s Day, we might want to adopt a fresh, French approach to affection. Compared to romantic partners in other cultures, U.S. couples apparently aren’t very “touchy-feely” in public. Studies in U.S. and Parisian cafes show that French couples spend about three times as much time touching as Americans.
This Valentine’s Day, you and your partner may not stroll down the Parisian Champs-Elysees and hold hands in a café, but you can take a few moments to show each other sincere love and affection through the power of touch. Cuddle up, hold a hand, give a hug. Express your feelings in touch and enjoy your relationship. For your special bond and your health, it’s good to make time for affection!
Marnie Blount-Gowan is a member of the Crouse Hospital Integrative Health Alliance.