Young people * Women's health * Mental wellbeing

Mum's voice as good as a hug

call from mum can reduce stress As good as actual contact in times of stress

Girls put into stressful situations respond just as well to a telephone call from their mother as they do to receiving a hug from her.

In a new study a group of 12-year-old girls were asked to make a speech and solve a series of maths problems in front of a group of strangers - an intense situation that negatively affects the body's stress levels.

During the tasks the girls' hearts raced and levels of cortisol — a hormone associated with stress — soared. Once stressed, one-third of the girls were comforted in person by their mothers — specifically with hugs, an arm around the shoulders and the like. One-third were shown an emotionally neutral video. The remainder received a phone call from their mother, with dramatic effects.

Cortisol levels dropped in both cases of motherly contact, physically and by phone. Also, the girls' levels of oxytocin, often called the "love hormone" and strongly associated with emotional bonding, rose significantly in both cases.

This is interesting because it had previously been assumed that oxytocin is produced as a result of physical contact only. But this study shows that even hearing a mother's voice can cause it to be released in children.

The benefits of the call lasted long after the call was made, with the cortisol levels remaining low for some time.

Study leader Leslie Seltzer said: "It was understood that oxytocin release in the context of social bonding usually required physical contact. But it's clear from these results that a mother's voice can have the same effect as a hug, even if they're not standing there."

She added: "Apparently oxytocin reduces stress in females after both types of contact, and in doing so may strengthen bonds between individuals."

She is next planning to see if the effect can be observed in other forms of communication such as text messaging, which may help to explain teenagers' attachment to their phones.

This article was published on Thu 13 May 2010

Image © sonya etchison -

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