The Big Idea
Who would have thought 2 years ago that hugs would make headlines!? Of all the things that the pandemic took from our lives, hugging someone special seemed to be one that many people cited as the first thing they would do when the restrictions were lifted. It might seem on the face of it that hugging is on par with shopping or going to the pub – something nice to do that it is natural to miss. However a closer look at the science helps us to understand that there is more to miss when it comes to hugs because the act of hugging is proven to release powerful chemicals that really matter to our mental health. After all, we are creatures that have evolved for connection and contact with others.
Whilst hugging has hogged the headlines, it’s important to note first off that other types of touch also have proven benefits. Hand-holding or stroking a pet can help to lower blood pressure – which in turn can reduce the risk of heart attacks or strokes – so far, so simple.
However, touching another human being or a pet has super-powers way that seem almost too good to be true when you list them – given it is such a simple thing to do and for most of us, is something we have easy and regular access to. Scientist have shown that endorphins are released – our pain killing chemicals. So your parent giving you a hug – or you rubbing a painful area – when you fell over as a child, wasn’t just about reassurance, it was about actually feeling less pain!
The power of touch also extends to increasing our self-esteem, improving our relationships and lowering our stress levels – and we explain more about why in the science section below. Suffice it to say that it is no wonder when you think about it that in the UK, 3.2 million pets were bought in lockdown and the demand for dogs being particularly huge – with a 60% increase in people seeking to adopt from the Dogs Trust charity. One interpretation is that in the absence of missing other people to touch, we literally sought out other ways to fill the hormonal and chemical gap.
A new fact that we learnt on the Instagram live show was that even for people who are alone, perhaps can’t touch another person yet or don’t live with a pet, there is a way to get the chemical release and do a quick brain trick. If you hug yourself whilst looking at another person you might not get the ‘Full Monty’ in terms of the hormone release, but you certainly get some of the good stuff rushing around your body – so worth remembering if we get locked down again – or perhaps if you are away from loved ones to travel or for work.
The advice on hugging changed in the UK on the 17th May 2021 and along with it came a raft of articles on how to make hugging safer. You can see a link to one from the BBC below. So let’s get into what it is about hugs that packs them with such power?
Got it…What’s the Science
Physical touch – whether human to human or human to pet gives us a deeper, more intimate connection that we get just from words. Therefore touch can benefit relationships hugely. Just think for a moment about the deep and meaningful emotions we might convey when we touch someone’s arm gently, or when we move down to their eye level and look at them whilst we hold their hands? We can communicate feelings of safety, love connection to one another and that is why it helps our self-esteem – someone who is touching us is conveying as sense of belonging – and that they approve or love us, just as we are.
Our brain’s ability to distinguish and interpret touch comes from an awesome myriad of pressure, temperature (warm and cold) across our skin. Each fingertip has more than 3,000 touch receptors alone – some areas of the body, such as our finger tips, obviously have a higher density of receptors than others. This gives us a sense of physical touch that scientists and medics call proprioception. Our bodies have even more pain receptors that communicate information about painful stimuli to our brains – which is called nociception. Combined this gives our bodies an absolutely amazing and sophisticated network to sense and communicate. And yet we so often take it for granted. Well maybe until now…
Nocicpetion is the process of communicating information about pain to the brain BUT the feelings that we experience as pain are actually an interpretation of the information by our brain which takes all sorts of information and context into mind (literally). Put in another way pain is actually really contextual – in other words it is a form of perception. Part of that context can include how connected you are to others. This includes physical touch. When we hug endorphins are released – including again from our brain’s pituitary gland (other body cells are known to also capable of releasing endorphins). Endorphins are our bodies’ own pain killer chemicals. A higher amount of these circulating in our bodies reduces our experience of pain by acting on both the peripheral nervous system (PNS: before the brain) and central nervous system (CNS: the brain). Remember that the PNS and CNS are an integrated system – making up together what we regard as our whole nervous system.
So when we hug, we are actually more capable of dealing with pain in the moment as well as more prepared for pain. Pain here by the way can also be emotional pain – brain scans have shown that we process different forms pain are in very similar areas of our brain. So hugging can be seen as helping with our resilience, which we tend to see as a strength.
Endorphins by themselves can make us feel mildly euphoric but they are not the only chemicals to be in play here. When we stroke or pet another, including a pet, our blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol are reduced. This lowers our blood pressure and general tension in our bodies, lowering our alert to threat levels. This could be related to a safety in numbers affect: if others are close and connected then an individual doesn’t need to be as alert for danger, which in turn conserves energy and resources for that / those individuals. also releases oxytocin – which is sometimes called the “hug hormone”, “love hormone” or “bonding hormone” because it makes us feel closer to someone. Oxytocin is the chemical that we know is released by the small but mighty pituitary gland after a mother gives birth to help with the process of attachment.
The reduction of threat readiness (lower cortisol) and increased attachment (higher oxytocin) is also likely to be important in our body language being more open as well as our brain having more capacity to be creative when being with another / other people. This is obviously important to initiating and maintaining relationships. This by the way, towards the more intimate and explicit end of the touch and relationship scale, includes sex!
Cortisol is one of our stress hormones and whilst it is good in small doses, higher levels of cortisol can cause us to have a whole load of health issues such as lower immunity, problems sleeping and may even increase our weight. So again studies have shown that hugging regularly and / or for as little as 10 seconds can have a big positive impact on our overall health, social security and mood. What’s more is that longer hugs, or petting a pet, seem to have very similar and longer impacting effects in our body and brains. So if you haven’t a person to be with, or they don’t like to be hugged a lot, then you can still have so many of the benefits here in terms of stress reduction, mood lift and connection by stroking your pet. This is so well accepted and appreciated that pets, especially dogs, offer a form of therapy used in places like care homes and schools.
So given there is so much power in such a simple act, is there scientifically a best way to hug? There might be!! Certainly it is an easy one to stack with #Tip3 and #Tip5 – If you look into someone’s eyes and think positive, grateful thoughts and take a moment to listen to each other’s breathing, this might help you to really pay attention to how the hug feels. Given what we learnt in #Tip8 too it would seem that you can power up your hugs even more!
Watch our #Tip21 on the Instagram Live Recording….
With special guests Scout Finch, Chief Brody and Cassie the dogs…
Hugging a person or stroking a pet has so many practical health benefits and is free, easy quick and effective. So once it is safe* (see the BBC article above) for you to do so, it makes complete sense that you get your hugs in – each and every day.
And if someone you know is overwhelmed in a relieved kind of way when they hug you for the first time, you know why. The power of the hug is such that it’s absence is felt hugely as an unmet, subconscious longing. We have heard so many people feeling overwhelmed with tears when hugging someone they know and love for the first time after such an absence. This is normal and also releases more of the chemicals in our brains that help with pain, loss and connection with others. So maybe take a moment to think about who you know that might need one – and hold them tight for a moment**.
** Just keep in mind though that this is not a tip for all. Some people find the thought of physical touch with another person really off putting to the point of panic and disgust. This can be due to their neurodivergence, past trauma or experience or just personal preference. So we would say just be mindful that hugging may not be for everyone and certainly not all the time. Each of our needed daily ‘hug quotas’ is different. Some people’s ‘hug tanks’ are bigger and more thirsty than others.
Watch this space…
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