Are you feeling stressed? Lonely? Bummed-out? Social scientists may have found a miracle cure. It only takes five minutes to test, and you can probably try it right now: Call your mom.
In the science of relationships, there are few magics as potent as a mother’s love. Researchers have long known that, for example, a child who hugs their mother will soon be flooded with the feel-good hormone oxytocin, a crucial ingredient in parent-child bonding, stress relief, and building trust. You can probably think of a time in your life right now when a little motherly love changed your mood right around. (Here’s the best advice we ever heard from a mom.)
But the power of mom’s love may go even farther than that, new research suggests—you may be able to get the same mood-improving hormonal benefits of physical contact even when mom lives 3,000 miles away. A study from University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Child Emotion Lab says that even just hearing your mother’s voice over the phone can have the same stress-reducing effects of a hug. Researchers subjected 61 girls (whose ages ranged from seven to 12 years old) to a routine stress test that involves solving tricky math problems in front of an audience of strangers. Once sufficiently frazzled, one group of girls was turned back to their mothers for reassuring physical contact; a second group was provided with phones to talk to their mothers for 15 minutes, and a third group watched an emotionally-neutral video. (Scientists use this movie clip to make people sob—can you withstand it?)
After analyzing fluid samples from each girl to measure their levels of both oxytocin and the stress hormone cortisol, the research team found some surprising results: girls who talked to their mothers on the phone showed nearly identical levels of stress reduction as the girls who got physical mommy time. “The children who got to interact with their mothers had virtually the same hormonal response, whether they interacted in person or over the phone,” says Leslie Seltzer, lead author of the study. After a stressful ordeal, mom’s the word.
But say calling your mom is impossible? Is dad the next best option? Maybe not. A paper from the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology says that talking to a woman—any woman—can reduce feelings of loneliness and improve mood more than talking to men can, no matter your gender. This result comes after two weeks of monitoring 96 college students, who recorded and rated every social interaction they had. Both men and women felt less lonely after talking to a woman. Part of this might be that many women are naturally skilled at listening and responding to emotional information. According to Kira Asatryan at Psychology Today, “women’s brains are more wired for social skills and memory—a combination that’s excellent for retaining details about another person’s private life.”
Talk to a woman and you’re likely to get a more genuine response than from a man—and when you’re feeling lonely, that’s just what the doctor ordered.