Hugging is an intrinsic part of life. From birth we learn that hugs provide a physical manifestation of the love we feel for family and friends. However, as we grow older we forget the power of embracing those who are significant to us. Teenagers cringe when their relatives wrangle them in for a hug, and life may become so overwhelming that we rarely see our loved ones, never mind find the time to show affection towards them. We, as a species, are becoming blind to the importance of touch between human beings.
To quote the American psychotherapist, Virginia Satir, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” But how is this possible? How can a simple embrace affect our quality of life? The answer is surprisingly scientific.
As infants, our first interaction with other humans is through touch. Mothers and fathers cradle and caress their children to calm them or to express affection. Both childbirth and the act of holding a newborn closely trigger the body to release a hormone called oxytocin, which encourages bonding between a mother and her offspring. Similarly, when we hug another person, oxytocin is released in both parties, creating an emotional connection, as well as a feeling of comfort. The oxytocin rush caused by physical and social interaction relaxes our bodies, lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels, responsible for stress responses.
Another bonus of hugging is the contentment felt during and after the act. In addition to oxytocin, hugging initiates the release of dopamine, a hormone that acts as a stimulant, creating a feeling of pleasure in the brain. This also helps to relax the body and mind, producing a subsequent soothing and blissful effect.
Frequent hugs can also act as a catalyst for physical healing. Hugging increases hemoglobin in the blood, which transports oxygen to our organs and other tissues. The higher level of hemoglobin allows for a more rapid healing process than if no hugs were given or received.
Those who refrain from hugging or other positive physical contact may be more vulnerable to depression and other psychological disorders. A lack of physical interaction with others, leading to higher levels of stress, is also known to be associated with trouble sleeping and, potentially, unhealthy relationships.
Hugging is not a chore or an obligation. Hugging is quite pleasurable, and for the benefits that it provides, totally worthwhile. Embracing a loved one shows you care about them and leaves them feeling happier and healthier. So hug your significant other, your parents, your children or best friend. Hug those who are in need of physical or psychological healing. The best part of it all? It’s incredibly difficult to give a hug without receiving one in return.
Read more on this topic in CUDDLING: Barry du Plooy discusses the art of a well-meant cuddle
image: Raul Lieberwirth (Creative Commons – BY-NC-ND)