The power of hugging (and the research behind it)

We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” – Virginia Satir, American Author and Psychotherapist.

With social distancing restrictions dramatically reducing human contact for more than a year, it seems that we’re all long overdue for a hug. Thankfully, from Monday, the green light for “cautious hugging” has been given the go-ahead here in the UK. But why have so many of us been craving physical touch from others?

Put simply, we need hugs. But let’s take a closer look at the science behind it.

 

Where does hugging come from?

The word “hug” is believed to have originated from the Teutonic and Saxon words “hagen” or “hog” which translates to “to be tender of, to embrace.” Alternative explanations suggest that it’s derived from the Ancient Norse word “hugga”, which means “to comfort.”

Not only is hugging a type of greeting between two people that is universal across cultures, but it’s also a form of endearment that can express friendship, affection, familiarity, sympathy and sometimes brotherhood. An abundance of research has highlighted the benefits of hugging on a person’s emotional, psychological, and physical health. But how?

 

The neuroscience of hugging

When we hug someone, our body produces endorphins, which are chemicals that relieve pain and stress, producing feelings of happiness and euphoria. That “good feeling” after eating chocolate or exercising is caused by endorphins flooding the body. In fact, research shows that endorphins are 30 times more powerful than morphine – a strong painkiller that is used to treat severe physical pain.

Hugging also releases the hormone oxytocin which is sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone” because our bodies produce it when we’re in close physical proximity to others. When oxytocin is produced, it relieves feelings of stress as it limits the production of the stress hormone norepinephrine and calms us down. One study found that the more hugs a woman received from her partner, the higher her levels of oxytocin and lower blood pressure whilst completing a stressful task were.

But does the length of the hug matter? Although there is no definitive answer that has been supported by research, the general consensus is that for the full benefits of a hug to be felt, it should last for at least 20 seconds. However, some researchers do argue that six seconds is enough for oxytocin to be triggered in the body.

 

3 reasons why hugging is good for you

Reduces stress

Stress is something we all experience, and a normal reaction that can make us feel like we’re crumbling under pressure. When we’re stressed, our overall well-being is impacted as our immune system can weaken, we’re more irritable, are less motivated and have lower sleep quality.

Research shows that when we experience affectionate touch like hugs, areas of the brain that are involved in our “fight or flight” and stress response such as the sympathetic nervous system are deactivated and fewer stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine are released. This is because the pressure detected by receptors on the skin triggers the release of oxytocin in the body and sends a signal to our automatic nervous system that we are safe. This makes people less reactive in situations that would have otherwise produced a fearful or negative response.

One study found that people who had been hugged after experiencing some sort of conflict, regardless of whether they were single or in a relationship, were less likely to report a negative impact on their mood and stress than those who hadn’t received a hug. The researchers concluded that hugs are a protective behaviour against stress.

Boosts the immune system

When we’re stressed, our normal immune system response gets disrupted and becomes overly aggressive. This is because of two reasons:

  • One, a person may be using unhealthy coping mechanisms such as increased alcohol, drugs or nicotine to combat the stress they feel.
  • Or two, the typical stress responses like increased heart rate and high blood pressure put too much strain on the body, which impacts the immune system’s ability to fight off infections.

Interestingly, hugs have been shown to boost a person’s immune system, especially in children. When hugging a child, we put pressure on their sternum (breastbone) which is in the central part of their chest, which activates their thymus gland. Located behind the sternum, it stimulates the production of white blood cells that protect the body from certain threats. It’s important to note that the thymus gland starts to shrink in size after puberty and turns into fat. However, adults can still experience its benefits.

Hugs have also been shown to improve a person’s symptoms whilst sick. One study exposed participants to a common cold virus, then monitored them in quarantine with a daily telephone interview. The researchers wanted to see how stress after conflict and social support could impact the severity of a person’s symptoms. They found that participants who felt more socially supported and were hugged more frequently experienced less severe symptoms of illness. Research also showed that hugging can be good for heart health, as couples who held hands for 10 minutes before hugging for 20 seconds had greater reductions in heart rate and blood pressure than those who sat in silence. 

Improves mental well-being

After months of isolation, having some sort of human contact like a hug can go a long way to combat feelings of loneliness and anxiety and help people feel more connected. Research from a retirement home in New York found that residents who received at least three hugs a day reported having more energy, better sleep quality, improved concentration and reduced feelings of depression.

But you don’t just have to hug a human to feel the benefits of hugging: you can experience it from hugging inanimate objects such as a teddy bear as well. Research shows interacting and hugging inanimate objects can help reduce feels of anxiety and fear in individuals who suffer from low self-esteem.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

If the science is telling us anything, it’s that the more hugs you can get, the better off you’re going to be. The last year has been extremely challenging and lonely for many, but as restrictions start to ease, hugging a loved one is right around the corner.

For more advice and tips on how to improve well-being, check out our blogs on 5 ways to improve your mental health and the relationship between mental health and mindset.



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