How many hugs have you had today? Neuroeconomist Paul Zak, also known as "Dr. Love," recommends at least eight hugs a day to feel happier and more connected, as well as nurture relationships. As psychotherapist Virginia Satir 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."
There may very well be a "hug threshold" that allows your body to produce ample amounts of oxytocin, which is released in response to physical touch such as breast-feeding, orgasm, hugs, snuggling, holding hands, partner dance, massage, bodywork, and prayer. The neuropeptide oxytocin, released by your pituitary gland, is a naturally occurring hormone in the body with incredibly powerful, health-giving properties.
This "love hormone" is also a key reason why the simple act of hugging is such an incredible way to enhance bonding with others but also boost your physical, and emotional, health.
How Hugging Makes You Healthier
Hugging increases levels of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that acts as a hormone. This, in turn, has been observed to have beneficial physiological effects on your cardiovascular health and emotional happiness. One group of researchers observed, for example, a reduction in blood pressure among adults following a brief episode of warm contact with their partner. A 20-second hug, along with 10 minutes of hand-holding, reduces the harmful physical effects of stress, including its impact on your blood pressure and heart rate (Grewen, Anderson, Girdler & Light, 2003). This makes sense, since positive physical contact as hugging and reduces cortisol, increases oxytocin, and lowers systolic blood pressure in stressful situations (Holt-Lunstad, Birmingham & Light, 2008). But researchers suggest there is even more to it than that.
The skin contains a network of tiny, egg-shaped rapidly adapting mechanoreceptors called Pacinian corpuscles with a large receptive field that can sense pressure and vibration and which are in contact with the brain through the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve winds its way through the body and provides input and receives sensation from the heart, liver, and digestive tract. (Freberg, 2006). The vagus nerve is also connected to oxytocin receptors. One theory is that stimulation of the vagus triggers an increase in oxytocin, which in turn leads to the cascade of health benefits.
A 10-second hug a day can lead to biochemical and physiological reactions in your body that can significantly improve your health. Hugging has been observed to stimulates your nervous system while decreasing feelings of loneliness, combating fear, increasing self-esteem, defusing tension, and showing appreciation. According to researchers, hugging has been observed to (Forsell & Åström, 2012):
The effects of connection
There's no doubt that physical touch of all kinds feels good. Whether it is a hug or a handshake, physical touch has a powerful effect on the human psyche resulting in us feeling happy, regardless if you are the toucher or touchee; connection, big or small, results in happiness.
Yet, many people are touch-deprived. One poll found that one-third of people receive no hugs on a daily basis while 75 percent said they wanted more hugs. Findings such as these, coupled with the emotional and health benefits of human touch, have led to the emergence of cuddle therapy centers, where people can pay for a lunchtime cuddle.
However, some have questioned whether or not physical contact from strangers has the same impact as those from someone you know and trust. While cuddling with a spouse or partner has been shown to boost satisfaction in relationships, some researchers have observed that hugs are only beneficial if trust is involved.
Neurophysiologist Jürgen Sandkühler, Head of the Centre for Brain Research at the Medical University of Vienna actually cautioned against worldwide "free hugs" campaigns (where strangers offer hugs to others), saying that this may be perceived as threatening and actually increase emotional burden and stress. However, significant benefits have been found from cuddling with a pet, which shows hugs don't have to only be between humans to be beneficial to your heart and overall health.
The Importance of Hugging
On average, people spend on hour a month hugging. That doesn't seem like much, but when you consider that the average hug is 3 seconds long, that adds up to be a lot of hugs.
And if you had any doubt about the importance of touch, consider that children who lack physical connection have delays in walking, talking, and reading. The act of hugging has a near-immediate impact on health, lowering your heart rate and inducing a calming effect while also leading to a more upbeat mood.
Touch is described as a universal language that can communicate distinct emotions with startling accuracy. Researchers observed that touch alone can reveal emotions including anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy, with accuracy rates of up to 83 percent (Hertenstein, Holmes, McCullough & Keltner, 2009).
Hugging is a way to encourage your body to release oxytocin, and the more oxytocin your pituitary gland releases, the better able you are to handle life's stressors.
Moreover, oxytocin quite likely plays a role in why pet owners heal more quickly from illness, why couples live longer than singles, and why support groups work for people with addictions and chronic diseases.
Oxytocin has also been found to reduce the cravings of drug and alcohol addiction, as well as for sweets. It even has a positive influence on inflammation and wound healing. Even beyond this, regular hugs have the added benefit of:
Do You Need a Hug?
Often making a concerted effort to hug the people close to you is one of the best ways to get more hugs in return. This can include your spouse, children, and other family members along with close friends. But even if you're not currently in a life situation conducive to getting daily hugs and producing enough of your own oxytocin on a regular basis, the good news is there are some alternatives you can use to help you deal in a healthy way with your emotional response to stress and anxiety.
With the already known and still-to-emerge health and quality of life benefits to be derived from the natural release of oxytocin in your body, your best course of action is to make sure you're cultivating warm, loving, intimate relationships, no matter what stage of life you're in. Additionally, if you have a pet, just a few minutes petting your dog or cat can promote the release of your body's "happiness" hormones, including oxytocin. Since touch anywhere on your body, as well as positive interactions and psychological support, are known to increase oxytocin levels, you might also consider:
Chillot, R. (2013). The Power of Touch. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201303/the-power-touch
Forsell, L., & Åström, J. (2012). Meanings of Hugging: From Greeting Behavior to Touching Implications. Comprehensive Psychology, 1, 02.17.21.CP.1.13. https://doi.org/10.2466/02.17.21.CP.1.13
Freberg, L. (2006). Discovering biological psychology (2nd ed.). Wadsworth: Cengage Learning.
Grewen, K., Anderson, B., Girdler, S., & Light, K. (2003). Warm Partner Contact Is Related to Lower Cardiovascular Reactivity. Behavioral Medicine, 29(3), 123-130. https://doi.org/10.1080/08964280309596065
Hertenstein, M., Holmes, R., McCullough, M., & Keltner, D. (2009). The communication of emotion via touch. Emotion, 9(4), 566-573. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016108
Holt-Lunstad, J., Birmingham, W., & Light, K. (2008). Influence of a “Warm Touch” Support Enhancement Intervention Among Married Couples on Ambulatory Blood Pressure, Oxytocin, Alpha Amylase, and Cortisol. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70(9), 976-985. https://doi.org/10.1097/psy.0b013e318187aef
Mercola, J. (2014). How Hugging Makes You Healthier and Happier. Retrieved from https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/02/06/hugging.aspx
Richardson, J. (2014). 9 Reasons You Need To Be Giving and Receiving Hugs Everyday. Retrieved from http://preventdisease.com/news/14/012314_9-Reasons-Need-Giving-Receiving-Hugs-Everyday.shtml
Zhivotovskaya, E. (2012). Oxytocin: Go Out and Touch Someone. Retrieved from https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/emiliya-zhivotovskaya/2012032321636
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