***Dedicated to my friend Lisa who put me onto the importance of 20-second hugs***
International Hugging Day falls on the 21st of January. I know that’s a way off, but it’s always good to be prepared. Why does hugging need a special day anyway? Really, we should be rolling in hugs every day. There’s a reason why pet owners heal more quickly from illness, couples live longer than singles, and support groups have awful coffee help people with addictions and chronic illness.
Some people have even spearheaded movements to spread hugs, like the Free Hugs Campaign and the Free Hugs Project. Being a professional hugger or cuddler is actually a legitimate job. These outgoing beings employ touch therapy on premature babies, provide cuddles at nursing homes or hospices, and can be hired for your individual hugging requirements. That’s not creepy at all!
What is It?
You know, that thing where you attempt to put your arms around another person but end up groping their boobs or sticking your finger in their ear. Awkward, but nice. And it’s possible to perfect the art of hugging and avoid the whole embarrassing part.
The great thing about hugs is they’re free, environmentally friendly, non-toxic, natural, organic, free of preservatives and pesticides, energy efficient, non-taxable, non-fattening, and have zero negative side effects. In fact, they have a ton of positive health effects.
How it Works
Your skin is packed full of sensory receptors and nerves. A particular group of sensitive nerve fibres, called C-tactile afferents, is found in hairy skin and responds most strongly to a low-intensity stroking touch that is perceived as pleasant by the receiver. This type of touch activates brain regions associated with social bonding and pleasure and triggers the release of oxytocin – the ‘love’ hormone. Oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that is part of the limbic system or emotional centre. It is then released into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland.
Oxytocin has all kinds of awesome effects on the body. It regulates many of the metabolic processes of the autonomic nervous system and increases social bonding. It regulates fear and aggression, promotes feelings of contentment and calm, and reduces anxiety and stress. It kicks in during childbirth so that your mother forgets about the excruciating agony of expelling you from her uterus and loves you anyway.
Here are seven amazing things hugs can do for you:
Touch is thought to be the first sense we develop; we feel the vibration of mother’s heartbeat while still in the womb. Studies show that we can send and receive emotional signals through touch alone. A 2009 study by DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein showed that we use touch to convey and interpret emotion. Volunteers touched blindfolded strangers in an effort to communicate anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, happiness, sadness, and sympathy. These emotions were decoded accurately 78% of the time.
Hertenstein says, ‘It seems that touch is a much more nuanced, sophisticated and precise way to communicate emotions.’ It can also be a faster way of communicating. “If you’re close enough to touch, it’s often the easiest way to signal something,” says Laura Guerrero, co-author of Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships, who researches nonverbal and emotional communication at Arizona State University. “We feel more connected to someone if they touch us.”
Hugging can increase the production of dopamine in your brain, the chemical that is deficient in people with conditions like Parkinson’s and depression. Dopamine is associated with motivation and satisfaction. Hugging also stimulates serotonin and endorphin production which improves mood, boosts self-esteem, and reduces feelings of loneliness. It may even have a positive effect on attention disorders.
In a 1976 study, university library clerks who briefly touched a student’s hand when returning library cards received more positive evaluations than those who didn’t touch, even when the touch hadn’t been noticed. More recent studies have shown that touch leads to bigger tips for waiters, more purchases at a shop, and a greater chance of a request for help being answered. Touch makes people feel happier and more positive, more closely bound to their fellow humans.
Says neurologist Shekar Raman, MD, “The more you connect with others — on even the smallest physical level — the happier you’ll be.”
A study published in the journal Psychological Science revealed that hugging and touching can reduce fear of death or fear that life is meaningless. Even hugging a teddy bear or imagining hugging a person you love can soothe these fears and cause your brain to release serotonin, dopamine, and endorphin.
Humans have been shown to have a tendency to recognise negative facial expressions more than neutral or positive ones. However, people who received oxytocin were more likely to recognise and recall happy faces. This could mean that we are better able to notice and appreciate positive thoughts and experiences when oxytocin is released. Hugs enhance our perception of the positive!
Photo Credit: Kerry the Mac
Balance the Nervous System
Let’s get a bit extra-sciency for a moment. In the skin is a network of tiny, egg-shaped pressure centres called Pacinian corpuscles. These can sense touch and connect to the brain through the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is connected to organs in the neck, chest, and abdomen, as well as oxytocin receptors. It also balances the parasympathetic nervous system. When engaging in a hug, the Pacinian corpuscles stimulate the vagus nerve which results in oxytocin production and balancing of the nervous system. This stimulation is so effective that it is used medically to treat depression, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety disorders, and rapid cycling bipolar disorder.
A hug also activates the Pacinian corpuscles and causes a positive galvanic skin response: a change in the electrical resistance of the skin caused by emotional stress. This change can be measured by a galvanometer, the type used in lie-detector tests. The moisture and electricity in the skin that causes improved skin conductance is a sign of a balanced and healthy nervous system.
Improve Heart Health and Relieve Stress
Oxytocin released through hugging lowers heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. Cortisol is the ‘stress’ hormone, so lower levels mean lower stress and blood pressure. Lower heart rate and blood pressure results in a lower risk of heart disease. Hugging also stimulates your vagus nerve, which can lower blood pressure.
In a study conducted by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, participants who hugged their partners for 20 seconds had a lower heart rate than those who did not have any contact. Frequent hugs between the participants and their spouses or partners were linked to both higher levels of oxytocin and lower blood pressure.
In a 2011 study at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, higher oxytocin levels were associated with lower cardiovascular and sympathetic nervous system reactivity to stress. More oxytocin = lower stress.
A University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine study discovered that young girls who received hugs from their mothers after a stressful situation – such as giving an unplanned speech or solving a math problem in front of strangers – had lower cortisol levels. A study at Carnegie Mellon university showed that a hug before a stressful occasion can ‘help you stay cool, calm, and collected during the event’ because your oxytocin levels are likely to remain elevated.
The bottom line? Hug your spouses and your moms to avoid heart disease.
Photo Credit: Kerry the Mac
Boost Immune System
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University studied 406 adults and discovered that participants who received frequent hugs and were exposed to a common cold virus experienced minimal or no symptoms of the illness. Cortisol inhibits the immune system, so more hugs means lower cortisol levels and therefore a stronger immune system.
Oxytocin has been found to diminish inflammation after stroke or heart attack, increase pain tolerance, and speed up healing of wounds.
The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine claims to have carried out more than 100 studies into touch. They have found proof of numerous benefits, such as faster growth in premature babies, reduced pain, decreased autoimmune disease symptoms, lowered glucose levels in children with diabetes, and improved immune systems in people with cancer.
Connections and bonds are formed through hugging, and a lot of this is due to the resulting release of oxytocin. People in loving, functional relationships are usually found to have increased levels of oxytocin. The release of oxytocin promotes trust, even around strangers. Couples who were given oxytocin and then asked to discuss a topic that was stressful or had triggered conflict in the past had more positive communication and were more supportive of each other. Neuroscientist Michele Noonan, PhD, says that touching while apologizing can help ease a person’s irritation.
Hugging reminds you that you’re there for each other, you are loved, you care, you are appreciated, supported, and acknowledged. Research shows that hugging loved ones often makes you more empathetic over time. We feel emotionally and psychologically connected to the other person.
Promote Healthy Development in Children
Oxytocin is released during childbirth and breastfeeding to strengthen the bond between mother and child. Even if a caesarean has been performed, prompt skin-to-skin contact is crucial for stimulating oxytocin production. This enhances the sense of attachment and security that is so necessary to young children.
A 2010 study showed that babies with affectionate mothers grew up to be happy, resilient, and less stressed or anxious adults. Various studies have revealed that physical affection from parents enables children to learn how to handle stress and manage emotions. Infants sleep better and are less irritable and more sociable.
Conversely, children who aren’t hugged are slow to walk, talk, and read and tend to have increased cortisol levels. They may experience cognitive, emotional, and physical issues. A 2015 study from Notre Dame showed that minimal hugging in early infancy resulted in more health and emotional problems than for children who received more hugs. Babies that are touch deprived may become so depressed that they stop eating and ‘fail to thrive’. This condition can be prevented with simple physical displays of affection.
How to Do It
First of all, keep in mind that not everyone enjoys hugs. Some are particularly sensitive to touch or are uncomfortable with contact from someone they don’t know really well. Some cultures hug more than others. Before starting your own ‘free hugs’ campaign, check that the person you want to hug is willing to receive it. Forcing a hug on someone who doesn’t want it will result in stress and discomfort for them and negate any good effects the hug might have had. Oxytocin won’t be released unless both participants are comfortable with the hug, trust each other, and send the same emotional signals.
Next, choose the right time to hug. The most natural times to hug are in greeting, to comfort someone, or to show affection or appreciation. This doesn’t mean you should hug the barista at your favourite coffee shop whenever they hand you that flat white. Appropriate hugging moments usually happen during a transition or break in the conversation: saying hello or goodbye, acknowledging someone’s pain or providing comfort, or that pause after receiving a gift.
Signal that you want to hug by making eye contact, opening your arms wide, moving forward, smiling warmly, and possibly even asking, ‘can I hug you?’ If the recipient indicates that they want the hug, either by saying so, opening their arms, or stepping towards you, then move in for the kill. I mean hug.
Don’t force it if the person doesn’t respond or even steps away from you. Not everyone is cuddly. Like cacti and electric fences. Give them their space.
Choose the appropriate hug for the occasion. A family member or close friend may be open to a full-on bear hug, but someone you know less well may prefer a side-hug or a quick, minimal contact squeeze. The contact needs to be firm to stimulate oxytocin production, but it shouldn’t be painful and it doesn’t need to be full-body contact (awkward with anyone aside from a romantic partner). Avoid stepping on toes, breathing into ears, and sniffing (seriously, this is creepy). No butt-squeezing without permission.
Guys, you can hug each other too. Add some manly back-slapping if you feel you’re losing your man card.
Enjoy the hug and think about imparting warm and happy feelings to the other person. Remember that touch can be a more effective communicator than speech, so don’t think that evil plans for world domination won’t come across and freak out your hug buddy.
How long should you hug? A 20-second hug has the strongest impact on oxytocin levels while also reducing blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels. But not everyone is comfortable with a 20-second hug. Warn your hug victim first or limit 20-second hugs to family and close friends. Typical hugs last 3 seconds. This is a bit too short for the health benefits that even a 6-second or 10-second hug can have, but hey! One hug is better than no hugs, right?
Hugging needs to be a daily habit, like nutrition, movement (link to move article), and chocolate. Neuroeconomist Dr. Paul Zak recommends 8 hugs per day while Psychotherapist Virginia Satir famously said:
“We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”
What if you don’t have enough willing huggers in your life to get your daily quota? Pet cuddling can be just as effective. Even petting your dog or cat for a few minutes can promote oxytocin release. Teddy bears have been shown to make good hug buddies and they never say no or complain about accidental butt groping. Self-massage and hugging yourself can also slow heart rate and lower cortisol levels.
Photo Credit: Kerry the Mac
Sadly, touch deprivation is a real issue, and humans seem to be getting far fewer hugs than they ought. One study discovered that one-third of participants got no hugs every day and 75% said they wanted more hugs. Don’t become a negative statistic.
Hug for health
Hug for love
Hug for the halibut.