Whereas smiles can cheer you up and a powerful pose can increase your feelings of confidence, a simple gesture can have an almost miraculous effect on calming you down. Giving or receiving a hug can trigger a huge release of oxytocin, which is popularly known as “the cuddle hormone.” In fact, physical contact in general releases oxytocin, which has been found in studies to be more effective than even soothing words to reduce levels of stress. In one study, husbands accompanied their wives to a stressful test. One group offered words of encouragement. The others simply massaged their wives’ shoulders. The latter group saw a decline in stress levels associated with testing. The former did not.
Granted, in some circles, hugging your business colleagues or massaging their shoulders may be frowned upon – and in some situations can even trigger a threat response from the recipient. (Just ask German Chancellor Angela Merkel who in 2006 received an unsolicited and clearly unwanted backrub from U.S. President George W. Bush!) Luckily, there are other more socially acceptable ways to get your oxytocin fix. Cuddling with a pet or a partner can release oxytocin and although its effects may not be quite as dramatic, so can simply shaking hands with a client or colleague.
Because our brain operates according to a negativity bias, our initial response when meeting someone new is to treat that person as a foe instead of a friend until we’re led to believe otherwise. You may not perceive this stranger as your enemy but your brain does. Like so many of our reactions, this one is evolutionarily based, deeply ingrained, and largely unconscious. This trips the threat circuit and stress ensues. Handshake to the rescue! This custom not only has a historical purpose — proof that you’re not holding a weapon – but also a neurological one, to reduce the threat response and generate a greater sense of connection by releasing a modest squirt of oxytocin.