It’s hard to imagine now, but during the height of the pandemic, many of us wondered whether hugs were a thing of the past. So great was the initial fear of catching the virus from any touching or close contact that ancient practices such as shaking hands or affectionately touching someone’s arm or shoulder, or two people coming together in a warm friendly or loving embrace became feared and forbidden.
Fortunately, none of those practices completely disappeared and are gradually becoming as common as they had always been. Perhaps they have even become more popular and appreciated after the long, isolated days caused by COVID-19, and the resurgence in understanding just how important and beneficial hugs are for us humans.
“The health benefits of giving and receiving hugs are quite impressive,” says psychologist Joseph Rock, PsyD, Center for Adult Behavioral Health, Cleveland Clinic. “Hugs have a therapeutic effect on people.”
While hugs are an obvious and pleasant way to show someone that you care about them, he adds, they are also good for your health.
“Research says that hugs can be healthy,” Dr. Rock says. “Hugs cause a decrease in the release of cortisol, a stress hormone, and other research indicates that hugs decrease your blood pressure and heart rate in stressful situations.”
Two of the benefits of hugs are that the personal, physical experience helps strengthen your immune system. Additionally, the therapeutic effects arise from the fact that your brain creates specific pathways to detect human touch.
“We can detach ourselves from people and get locked up in our own world,” he says. “Just the physical act of hugging someone really does connect us with them and lets down some of our defenses.”
Right now, one of the absolutely most important rewards of receiving a hug these days, Dr. Rock emphasizes, is that it communicates and confirms that you are “safe, loved and not alone.”
Regular and frequent hugs have also been found to lead to decreased depression. An article from Intermountain Healthcare “The Power of Hugs and How They Affect Our Health” states correctly that, “All of us can probably agree that sometimes there’s nothing like a hug when you’re feeling blue.” The article goes on to describe a recent practical example:
“A retirement home in New York decided to take this idea to a systematic level and implement a program called ‘Embraceable You.’ It was a push for more contact between the older residents and staff members so as to improve the residents’ well-being. As it turned out, the residents who received three or more hugs per day felt less depressed, had more energy, could concentrate easier and slept better.”
As for the impact hugs can have on our immune system, the article explains: “Maybe you’ve noticed how it’s so much easier to get sick when you’re stressed out. That’s because our immune system kicks into overdrive when we’re feeling stressed, and it can actually backfire to make us more susceptible to illness. One study found that people who were hugged and felt socially supported also experienced less severe signs of sickness.”
So let’s take a deeper look into our human biology that gives us this wonderful gift through a natural reaction that releases oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” or “feel-good hormone.”
“Oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland when we’re physically affectionate, producing what some describe as warm fuzzies – feelings of connection, bonding and trust,” says Paula S. Barry, M.D., physician at Penn Family and Internal Medicine Longwood.
The other cool thing about oxytocin, she adds, is that it naturally comes with a compounding affect. The more affectionate you are, the more you get rewarded with wanting to hug, touch, hold hands and maybe even throw in some kissing, too. According to Dr. Barry, the rising comfort level and pleasures of that snowball affect can play an important role in your meaningful relationships as well as your long-term personal well-being and overall health.
Typically, oxytocin levels are higher in women than in men, and there is some connection to the maternal or caring nature of women. The article also discusses a study of 59 women in which those who hugged their partners more often had a lower resting blood pressure than the women who “rarely engaged in physical touch.”
“It is uncertain if this is related to a change in vagal tone, the release of oxytocin and other hormones and peptides, or the feeling of comfort, support, and caring brought on by a hug,” Dr. Barry says.
Of course, healthy blood pressure levels contribute directly to protecting your body against heart disease, so hugs provide another small but potentially significant benefit as a way to improve your heart health.
A few additional advantages of hugging and holding hands include the ability to fall asleep faster and stay asleep because of a demonstrated link to increased levels of oxytocin. “This might be a side effect of the hormone’s ability to regulate sleep patterns, which some studies attribute to a slew of other benefits including fewer nightmares,” the article states.
Several ongoing research studies are evaluating the role of oxytocin and its affect on eating behaviors, as well. So, hugging, holding hands and kissing may even help you lose weight. Oxytocin is an appetite-related hormone that the body releases when we are full to signal our brain and body to cease eating. When you feel like you have eaten, you are less likely to desire another bite of your meal or crave a snack.
Being satisfied in the amount of affection you are giving, receiving and sharing, then, can help you find greater satisfaction in your feelings of personal safety, comfort and love. All of which makes hugging a great path to keep you on the road to health and happiness. In other words, let hugging take hold in your life!