Before an exam, the stress level increases. A study now suggests that when women hug their partner, less of the stress hormone cortisol is produced. However, this does not apply to men.

A job interview, a lecture in front of a large group of people or an important meeting – a hug from your partner could make a difference. Assuming you are a woman. A study published in the journal Plos One suggests that women who were allowed to hug their significant other before a stressful situation decreased production of the stress hormone cortisol compared to women who did not hug their partner. However, the researchers could not prove this advantage of a hug for men.

In the experiment, the scientists examined 76 men and women in romantic relationships. Only women and men in heterosexual partnerships took part in the study. The pairs were divided into two groups. All participants were exposed to a stressful situation – they had to hold one hand in ice water.

One group was allowed to hug their partner beforehand. And the other didn’t—it served as a control group. Before and after the experiment, the researchers measured various stress indicators in the participants, including cortisol levels.

Stress does not decrease measurably in men

It’s no wonder that touch helps regulate the body, study lead author Julian Packheiser, a postdoctoral fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, told CNN. The neurotransmitter oxytocin is often referred to as the love hormone. Affection for someone you love releases oxytocin, which lowers cortisol levels. This response in the body, along with the social support of a hug, can cushion stress, according to the study.

Other studies have already shown that people benefit from longer physical contact such as a massage and that this can reduce stress levels, the authors describe in the study. In their study, the scientists did not find out exactly why men cannot (as much) benefit from a hug as women.

A possible explanation: Men may not have felt comfortable with the hugs because they could be socially perceived as unusual or even unpleasant for men, reports Julian Packheiser. Different touch receptors in men and women can also be the cause of this effect. “Just because we haven’t found the effect in men doesn’t mean it’s not there,” says. “The effect could simply be smaller and went undetected in the experiment.”

Hugs before important tasks

The study and results are limited because it is a small investigation. More research is needed to learn more about the effect of touch from romantic partners and even friends on stress levels, but a hug from loved ones can be helpful in some situations either way.

If your partner has a stressful lecture, job interview, or important exam coming up, being hugged by your partner can likely help her to be less stressed and more able to respond to the situation. The stress hormone cortisol can affect memory performance. That could make an upcoming task more difficult, says study author Julian Packheiser. He recommends: “A simple piece of advice would be to hug your partner, relative or friend when you know they are about to face stressful situations.” With one requirement, of course: you should want the hug and be comfortable with it.

Sources: Study Plos One, Cnn