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The Science of Hugs

Want to stay healthy and disease free? Hug it out! A good hug is like Prozac for your body, mind, and soul! Would you believe it—a warm cuddle from your partner in the bed can save you from a bout of common cold every now and then! But that is not all! It builds social connection, enhances your well-being, and is so reassuring and comforting when you are going through a crisis. In fact, when you stroke your pet, your oxytocin, one of the feel-good hormones, shoots up. Why do hugs feel so good? Have you heard about the cuddle nerves? Read on to learn all about the science of hugging.

Over the last three years, humanity as a whole has gone through a bit of a hugging crisis—with all of us cooped up in our homes and socially distancing—and this is reflected in heightened stress levels, a sense of insecurity, and loneliness creeping in. According to science, physical touch is one of the most basic senses that we use to experience the world. It is the first sense that kicks in upon being conceived. It eases the heart rate and nurtures the growth of brain cells.

Hugs also have multiple other benefits, such as

1. Good for your immune system

In a very interesting study, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University wanted to know if frequent hugs as a means of positive social support could lower stress in those fighting an illness. The results weren’t a surprise—researchers observed 400 adults who were exposed to a virus of a common cold and found the more frequent huggers were not only less likely to catch a cold, but among those who did, the severity of symptoms was much lower.

“This suggests that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress,” Sheldon Cohen, lead researcher on the study, mentions. “Those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection.”

Researchers explain this happens by regulating mood-shifting hormones like oxytocin and cortisol brought about by hugging and positive physical touch. At the same time, too much stress and anxiety weaken our body’s innate ability to fight off infections.

2. Hugs get the love hormones flowing!

Why do hugs feel so warm and nice? It is because when we hug or cuddle or even pet an animal, our body releases what is called the love hormone—oxytocin. This release of oxytocin helps lower blood pressure and regulates stress hormones like norepinephrine. Studies show women who were hugged more often by their partners and had better relationships also benefitted more from the release of oxytocin. Women who caressed and held their infants close also experienced the soothing effects of oxytocin supply.

3. Hugs can help with sleep.

Hugs, cuddles, or gentle caresses achieve two things—they lower cortisol levels, a hormone released when there is heightened stress, and help counter the physiological signs of stress too. Since cortisol has a say on our circadian cycle, regulated cortisol levels and lowered stress levels also help you sleep better. Hugs are not just a sleep medicine, but they also help you become resilient to stress in the long term.

This has also been seen in infants. When babies are held often, the physical contact balances the release of hormones like oxytocin and cortisol, which helps them regulate their emotions, lower anxiety, and develop good resilience to everyday stressors.

4. Hugs activate the ‘cuddle nerves.’

In emerging neurological research, scientists have found what is called the ‘cuddle nerves’ or c-tactile afferents—a bunch of nerves that play an important role in translating the emotional impact of a gentle touch. Researchers from Liverpool John Moores University explain, “These c-tactile afferents have essentially evolved to be ‘cuddle nerves’ and are typically activated by a very specific kind of stimulation: a gentle, skin-temperature touch, the kind typical of a hug or caress. We see c-tactile afferents as the neural input stage in signaling the rewarding, pleasurable aspects of social tactile interactions such as hugging and touching.”

5. Hugs give you feelings of pleasure and well-being.

When you give or receive a hug, the cuddle nerves are activated, instructing several neurological changes in the body, including the release of oxytocin that eases your heart rate, reduces stress, and the gush of endorphins activates the brain’s reward centers, producing a sense of pleasure and wellbeing, according to the researchers. This creates a sense of comfort when someone is seen undergoing a conflict or stressful situation, though a hug shouldn’t have to wait until an emotional crisis unfolds.

6. We can communicate better through hugs.

A simple lingering hug or gesture of holding hands can sometimes say more than a thousand words. The nature of physical touch, length, and body parts involved can convey emotions like gratitude, love, joy, sadness, or fear. By working through a complex neural network, the act of hugging or other positive physical contact helps create social bonds and lasting relationships. They can help mitigate conflict on one hand and convey support on the other.

Hugs and feel-good physical contact become important tools of emotional expression of caring, especially if you are a caregiver tending to aging parents or a sick family member. When verbal communication is not received due to a lack of physical ability, hugging, holding, or gentle massaging of feet or hands can be incredibly comforting and make others feel as loved as us.

“We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” —Virginia Satir, therapist

The last few years have been about being cautious with physical contact. We are often discouraged from holding hands or hugging, and for the right reasons of hygiene and safety. It also goes without saying that we need to adhere to consent and respect each other’s personal boundaries when it comes to physical contact.

But nothing changes the fact that with all of us reeling under the aftereffects of the pandemic on our mental health and physical well-being, the simple act of hugging, gently touching, or holding hands can go a long way in healing the pains of having survived several months in physical isolation, or indeed the grief of loss and uncertainty.