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The Gift of Hugs

Monday, December 19, 2016

My mom is a hugger.  Through the years, countless people have told me, “Your mom gives the best hugs.”  You see when mom hugs, it isn’t one of those delicate, just touch the shoulders and lean in hugs; it is a full-blown, wrap you up in my arms and hold on tight hug.  It is an “I am not letting you go until you relax in my arms” hug. When you get done with a Grandma Margo hug, you can’t help but feel better.  Something about those arms encircling you and not letting go communicates love, support, and kindness.  Not only do you feel loved, you actually feel better physically after you’ve been held tight by this 83 year old woman.  Her hugs are therapeutic to her family, friends, and strangers. I have never seen my mom be introduced to someone new and just shake hands.  She always says,  “Come here, I’m a hugger,” as she holds her arms out and steps forward to embrace what will now be one more friend.  

Humans were made to hug, love, and live in community.   Research long ago confirmed that social ties were crucial for everything from doing well in school to living longer.   Now we have evidence that hugs in particular are good for our emotional and physical well-being.  In the United States, we tend to be a bit stand-offish.  We tend to save our hugs for family and close friends; and even then, due to hectic schedules or living alone, we may not receive an honest to goodness hug for days.  Handshakes with an occasional pat on the back are the norm in the work world.  In other cultures, however, touch and hugs are much more common.   Back in the 1960s, psychologist Sidney Jourard studied the conversations of two friends in different parts of the world as they sat at café together.  Each group of friends was studied for the same amount of time in each of the different countries.  In England, the two friends touched each other zero times.  In the U.S., they touched each other two times.  But in France, the number went up to 110 times per hour and in Puerto Rico, the number reached an astounding 180 touches per hour!  What we now know, is that this disparity in touching is not just a curious cultural difference.  It is actually part of a bigger health picture.  Here are just some of the latest findings regarding hugs:

Hugs Protect Against Stress and Infection

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University tested whether hugs act as a form of social support, protecting stressed people from getting sick.  The team tracked how many hugs 404 individuals received each day for 14 days.  At the end of that time, the participants were intentionally exposed to a common cold virus and monitored in quarantine to assess infection and signs of illness.  They found that those people with greater perceived social support and increased number of hugs were less likely to become ill and if they did, the symptoms were less severe.  

Hugging Reduces Anxiety and Stress

Tiffany Field, psychologist at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, School of Medicine theorizes that hugging triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps us bond with one another, relaxes us, and lowers blood pressure.  She explains that hugging or cuddling with someone stimulates pressure receptors under your skin.  This triggers the vagus nerve (the longest cranial nerve in our body reaching from deep within our trunk to the brain).  This nerve then signals the release the hormone oxytocin also known as the love or bonding hormone.  Oxytocin is known to increase levels of feel-good hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, which according to Field may be why it has calming effects.  All that to say, hugging triggers a series of events in our body that lead to the release of several hormones all associated with calmness and better mood regulation.

Hugging Can Lower Your Heart Rate and Blood Pressure

Stress increases our heart rates and blood pressure; and stress over a long period of time can lead to chronic disease.  A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study suggests that hugging your partner could actually reduce heart rate and blood pressure.  The study found that couples who enjoy more cuddling may have lower physiological stress responses, reducing their risk of heart and other diseases.  The study looked at warm-contact groups (those who hugged and cuddled) and no-contact groups.  The warm-contact group heart rates and blood pressure were lower even when they were in conflict.

On behalf of the Noyes Health team, I wish you a wonderful holiday season filled with hugs, laughter, joy, and good health.  

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at Noyes Health in Dansville.  If you have questions or suggestions for future articles she can be reached at lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org or 585-335-4327.  

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