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The ultimate guide to hugging: the what, why and how of the perfect hug

5 October 2017

The ultimate guide to hugging: the what, why and how of the perfect hug

In this age of social disconnectivity, where the bulk of our communication is carried out via technology, it’s more important than ever to reach out personally to loved ones.

Our lives are increasingly dominated by electronics. A typical British household owns an average of 7.4 internet devices, so it is no surprise a quick video call can be easier than jumping in the car to meet friends or family. Even when we do find the time, just the presence of a smartphone during a face-to-face catch-up can lower the quality of our interactions, found a study by Virginia Tech.

Social media and online relationships may increase the frequency of our conversations, but, they’re actually making us less sociable, causing distractions that detract from our real-life relationships. So let’s take things back to basics and rediscover the joys of real human touch.

Hugging is good for your health & wellbeing

A hug a day could keep the doctor away — or at least mean you’re less likely to need to give them a call. Hugging releases oxytocin, also known as the bliss hormone, love hormone or aptly, the cuddle hormone. Oxytocin not only promotes intimacy and bonding but may also improve digestion, lower blood pressure, aid healing and reduces stress.

In an article for the Huffington Post, author and pharmaceutical industry veteran, David R. Hamilton, Ph.D. said: “We produce oxytocin every day. It flows when you show empathy or compassion, when you are kind or genuinely pleasant, when you show affection, when you hug.”

Good for the gut

Oxytocin has also been proven to ease gastrointestinal inflammation and reduce the risk of food sensitivities. The hormone has even been linked to the treatment of IBS. Studies have found that those who suffer from the condition are likely to have decreased levels of oxytocin in their systems. In tests, patients who had the hormone administered intravenously or by nasal spray, not only saw a reduction in abdominal pain but also reduced levels of depression systems. Interestingly, two conditions that are often linked.

Mental health and wellbeing

The production of oxytocin during the act of hugging acts as amplifier and suppressor of neural signals in the brain. This means that, in the future, it could be used to treat social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychological trauma. The hormone has been found to play an important role in stress regulation and has the potential to aid treatment for a variety of psychiatric conditions.

A poll this year found that three-quarters of older people in the UK describe themselves as lonely, and more than half of those have never spoken to anyone about the way they feel. The poll by Gransnet, an over 50s social networking site surveyed over a thousand people with an average age of 63 as part of the Jo Cox commission on loneliness. The chairs of the commission said:

“How we care and act for those around us could mean the difference between an older person just coping, to them loving and enjoying later life.”

Conditions such as Parkinson’s, which typically affect people later in life, could also be helped with a simple hug, as hugging increases the production of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine levels in conditions such as Parkinson’s and depression, are typically low.

Hallmark Care Homes Managing Director, Avnish Goyal said: “Hugging is often discouraged in care homes and this shouldn’t be the case as hugging is natural and it is very therapeutic.

“Hugging decreases stress, it increases well-being and it makes people happy which is why we have a day dedicated to hugging and celebrating the bonds we have between our residents and team called Hug Day.”

Both physical touch from a friend or loved one, and cuddling an animal or pet have been shown to improve mood, combat depression, reduce stress and improve our health.

Healing powers

Wound care is a huge drain on our public health system and costs the NHS £5.3 billion a year. While hugging may not be a solution to the NHS crisis, oxytocin does play an important role in the healing process. It aids angiogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels or re-growth of them after suffering an injury.

Research shows that stress or emotional conflict can slow the wound healing process, and is associated with lower oxytocin levels. In one study of couples, those who showed conflicted behaviours in their relationship, found that their physical wounds healed 40 percent slower.

Hugging has even been reported to prevent the common cold. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University asked 400 healthy adults to record the number of hugs they received in a two-week period. Participants were then exposed to the virus. The results showed that those with the strongest social support, shown through hugs, were less likely to catch a cold. Those who did get sick appeared to have less severe symptoms.

Healthier relationships

Physical touch is vital for relationships. It has been well documented that oxytocin promotes bonding between parents and their children, promotes milk production in nursing and helps with contractions during birth. Touch also activates the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex, with has been linked to feelings of compassion.

Overall, hugging could make you happier, healthier and form stronger relationships. The oxytocin released during the compassionate act makes us more optimistic, more trusting and improves our self-esteem.

Why is hugging so important?

Impact on early life

Along with the whole host of health and wellbeing benefits touch improves learning engagement. A report by a French psychologist Nicolas Guéguen found that when teachers pat students in a friendly way, those students are three times as likely to speak up in class.

Physical affection, including cuddling, is also paramount in the development of babies. Babies who receive proper physical touch during infancy go on to become emotionally stable adults with improved self-esteem and confidence.

Virginia Satir, a respected family therapist, once said, “We need four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs a day for maintenance and 12 hugs a day for growth.”

Emotion in the workplace

In later life, physical contact is equally important. In the workplace, emotional leadership can create an environment that makes people want to come to work and perform. Caring management that sees their employees as people, rather than as a machine, will likely see an increase in productivity and financial performance. An empathetic leadership style is not only more successful, but much healthier than leading through fear.

Doug Zanger, America’s editor of marketing and media news outlet, The Drum, highlighted this at a recent event. He began proceedings by having everyone stand up and give each other a hug to demonstrate the positive impact of emotion. The panel spoke about the importance of setting realistic expectations of how emotions will affect your employees.

While we learn about caring and empathy in our formative years, many people lose that sense in the business world. Having a sense of empathy, building connections and reaching out can make us stronger and more successful leaders.

What makes the perfect hug?

Many may argue the bear hug is the perfect hug. The bear hug is characterised by holding your friend or loved one close and tight. This type of hug is almost guaranteed to release the aforementioned oxytocin hormone in your body – proven to boost your positive emotions, lower stress and calm your nervous system.

Not only is the physical contact at an optimum level with your dearest’s body pulled tight against yours, but the length of the hug matters too. Studies have shown that hugging for twenty seconds or more is what maximises oxytocin production.

Now, 20 seconds may seem like a lifetime to be clinging on to someone else, but it is at this point that a real sense of trust is established and our emotional capacities are positively influenced.

The perfect hug is a hug delivered ‘properly’. We can all spare twenty seconds or so from our busy lives to pull a dear friend or loved one close and hug authentically and consciously. A proper hug is one of the best gifts we can give – it is free, it results in almost instant happiness, and improves the health of both the giver and the receiver!

Is oxytocin really that special? In short, yes. Along with feelings of increased happiness, the science of oxytocin is that when hugged the physical touch sends a signal to the brain’s frontal cortex. It does this through the abundance of pressure receptors under the skin. When these centres sense touch they send a signal via the vagus nerve which is also connected to the heart. So as well as having an array of mental benefits such as reducing stress and symptoms of depression, this is how hugging can also positively affect our blood pressure and heart health.

“Oxytocin levels go up with holding hands, hugging and therapeutic massage. The cuddle hormone makes us feel close to one another. It really lays the biological foundation and structure for connecting to other people.”Matt Hertenstein, an experimental psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana.

Where did hugging come from?

Whilst the origins of the act of hugging are unclear, what we do know is that the word ‘hug’ is most likely derived from the Scandinavian word ‘hugga’ meaning ‘to comfort’ in Old Norse. However, others may argue that it comes from the German term ‘hegen’ which means ‘to foster and cherish’. Either way, the meaning is an affectionate embrace and in recent history, we hug for a number of reasons including:

  • To greet a friend or family member
  • To say goodbye
  • As a sign of affection
  • To comfort or console someone
  • To motivate someone ahead of an event

The increase of hugging in these contexts and the science of the benefits of hugging is evidence that touch is a fundamental human need; up there with food, water, and shelter – it is vital to our survival.

It’s time to change

In the digital age, there is a need for change. We should be taking more time to connect with each other physically, emotionally and in person rather than electronic devices. Hugging is proven to improve our mental well-being and our physical health. The act encourages bonding between new mothers and offspring and could even affect our success in the workplace.

Considering a hug is free, isn’t it time we embraced the importance of physical contact and pulled our eyes away from our screens?