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When Stress Hits, Call Your Mother. Don’t Text, Talk to Her. Really.

You’ve had a crappy day. Maybe your boss yelled at you, you forgot to pay the mortgage, or you lost your keys. When life stresses you out, sometimes you need your momma. After all, how many times have you heard your mom say how nice it is to hear your voice? But recent research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that it may be you that benefits from hearing your mother’s voice.1

Specifically, the researchers wanted to determine whether some forms of communication with mom were better than others. They looked at three types of communication (in person, by phone, or by instant message) to determine whether simply communicating with mom is beneficial, or if there is something uniquely valuable about hearing your mother’s voice.

The researchers had 68 young girls, ages 7.5 through 12 years old, experience a stressful situation that involved completing math and verbal problems for 15 minutes in front of an audience. (Just imagine for a moment having to count down backwards from a number like 2478 by 13s within a time limit while standing in front of an interview panel and knowing that if you make a mistake you have to start over. STRESSFUL!)  Next, the researchers randomly assigned the girls to do one of four things for another 15 minutes: (a) wait alone with no contact with mom, (b) talk to their moms in person, (c) talk to their moms via phone, or (d) interact with their moms via instant message. Afterwards, researchers measured the girls’ salivary cortisol (a stress hormone) and urinary oxytocin (a hormone linked to bonding, trust, and empathy) levels.

So which group fared the best? The two groups that were able to speak to their moms (either in person or over the phone) had higher oxytocin levels (a good thing) than did the instant message group and the no contact group. There was no difference in oxytocin levels between the in-person group and the phone group, which suggests that the benefits lie in hearing mom’s voice.  

When girls IM-ed their moms, they had salivary cortisol levels that were similar to those who did not communicate with mom at all. That is, at least when it comes to lowering stress levels, communicating via instant message isn’t any better than not talking at all. Similar to the oxytocin findings, girls who spoke to their moms either in person or over the phone had the best stress response – they exhibited lower stress levels than both the instant message and no contact groups.

Overall, this study suggests that simply communicating with your mom isn’t enough. Instead, hearing your mom’s voice has a uniquely soothing effect. So the next time you are stressed out by school, work, family, friends, or life…call your mother. Sometimes texting or a Facebook message isn’t enough.

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1Seltzer, L. J., Prososki, A. R., Ziegler, T. E., & Pollak, S. D. (2012). Instant messages vs. speech: Hormones and why we still need to hear each other. Evolution And Human Behavior, 33(1), 42-45. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2011.05.004  

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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