What's in a Hug?
An act of holding someone tightly in one's arms, typically to express affection.
"Peggotty was not slow to respond, and ratify the treaty of friendship by giving me one of her best hugs." - Charles Dickens
I had an experience a couple of weeks ago that illustrated the healing power of a simple hug. My family and I are currently going through some significant challenges. Rather than disconnect from the people closest to us, we have leaned in and reached out so that our friends and loved ones are aware and able to provide support as needed. It has been humbling, but helpful. One sweet friend went out of her way to let me know that I was loved and supported. It moved me so intensely that I've been trying to find the words to write about it since it happened.
I was walking down the hallway after church, wanting nothing more than to find my children and get out of the building as fast as I could. I ran into a friend and started chatting with them when I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and was immediately embraced by this amazing woman who instinctively knew exactly what I needed. It wasn't the kind of hug that you give quickly and move on. It was a full-on, "I know life is hard, but I need you to know that it's going to be okay and I'm here for you" kind of hug. I felt disarmed. And after a few seconds, I felt a release of emotions that I had been holding onto for weeks. I instantly felt loved, validated, seen, and protected. It was everything I didn't know I needed, and her response to me when I thanked her later that day was "It's literally all I could do."
It may have been all she could do, but it was more than enough to soothe my soul and give me the strength I needed to face the week ahead.
Maybe you're not much of a hugger. Maybe you are. Whatever your thoughts are about physical touch, hugs have been proven to reduce stress and can benefit your overall health and well-being.
So what's in a hug?
1. Hugs may protect you against illness. In 2014, Carnegie Mellon University conducted a research study with just over 400 healthy adults. In this study, adults were asked about the amount of interpersonal conflicts and hugs received over the course of 2 weeks. The participants were then intentionally exposed to a common cold virus and monitored while quarantined. What they discovered was the more often that people received social support and hugs, the less likely they were to get sick. (Cohen, 2014)
2. Hugs physically reduce your stress level and make you happier.
When we are exposed to stress, our bodies react by producing a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is our primary stress hormone. It signals a sort of a natural alarm system in our brains that can control mood, motivation, and fear. Our body's response to stress is meant to be short lived (i.e.: fight or flight response). When we are continually exposed to stress, it wreaks havoc on our bodies. Overexposure to cortisol can disrupt almost all of our body's processes and we are at an increased risk of multiple health problems. Can anyone think of a reason why most of the world is experiencing consistently heightened stress levels? Enter COVID-19. When you hug someone, you signal your body to produce oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurochemical that helps us build trust, dissolve painful short-term memories, and "feel warm all over" (Degges-White, 2016). When we hug someone, we reduce our stress level and theirs.
3. Hugs can increase your heart health.
A group of scientists did a study in 2003 about cardiovascular activity and "warm partner contact" (Grewen, et al, 2003). A group of approximately 100 romantically involved partnerships were divided into two separate groups. One group had each set of partners hold hands for 10 minutes followed by a 20-second hug. The other group had each set of partners sit in silence for 10 minutes and 20 seconds. The people in the first group showed a reduction in blood pressure levels and heart rate in comparison to the other group.
4. Hugs can diminish feelings of depression.
At a retirement home in New York, a program called "Embraceable You" was started to commemorate National Hug Day. Over the course of this program, the senior residents and staff members were asked to have more consistent contact with each other (hugs). They found that the residents who received three or more hugs per day felt less depressed, had more energy, better concentration, and better sleep! (Brannon, 2014)
5. Hugs can help teenagers feel connection that decreases their levels of anxiety and depression.
According to Dr. Christy Kane, human connection is the main component that drives specific communities to have low levels of anxiety and depression (Jenson, 2020). Where children and teenagers were once regularly embraced, i.e.: religious services, schools, etc., they are now greeted by adults who are no longer allowed to show affection. There are some children and teenagers who go days, weeks, and even months without being embraced and feeling human connection. Dr. Kane teaches that individuals, especially children and teenagers, should receive at least eight hugs a day for eight seconds each. Children and teenagers need connection for their development! When was the last time you hugged your kid for eight seconds? I know I'm guilty of often allowing my kids to leave for school with as little as a "See ya!" yelled from the other room. Not good! I need to do better. We need to do better.
In the midst of life's stresses and the rising cortisol levels in our body, let's take a few minutes to remember to hug our loved ones. I won't ever forget the power of a simple hug and the many times that my spirits have been lifted by an embrace from a friend.
Brannon, Karen. "Embraceable You: How Hugging Promotes Well-Being." Leading Age. Leading Age Magazine. 2014 January/February; 04(01).
Cohen, Sheldon, Denise Janicki-Deverts, Ronald B. Turner, and William J. Doyle. “Does Hugging Provide Stress-Buffering Social Support? A Study of Susceptibility to Upper Respiratory Infection and Illness.” Psychological Science 26, no. 2 (February 2015): 135–47.
Degges-White, Suzanne. “The Undeniable Power of a Simple Hug | Psychology Today.” Psychology Today, Psychology Today, 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifetime-connections/201606/the-undeniable-power-simple-hug.
Grewen KM, Anderson BJ, Girdler SS, Light KC. Warm partner contact is related to lower cardiovascular reactivity. Behav Med. 2003 Fall;29(3):123-30.
Jenson, Kristen. "Screen Time and the Brain: Expert Advice on Electronic Addition and Teaching Kids Healthy Tech Habits." Defend Young Minds. 2020.