There's nothing quite like a comforting hug. Sometimes, we embrace to express affection for a family member or friend. Other times, a hug is a part of a greeting or goodbye. But did you know there are biological reasons we hug, and science-backed facts about hugs to support their positive role in our lives? Here are a few ways hugs are helpful.
1. They Relieve Stress and Pain
Hugging often creates a feeling of calmness and relaxation. That's because of oxytocin, which is sometimes called the "cuddle hormone." Oxytocin is released when people or pets snuggle up or bond socially. This release can have a domino effect throughout the body and has been found to:
- Reduce inflammation.
- Improve wound healing.
- Lessen cravings for drugs, alcohol, and sweets.
- Lower heart rate and stress.
Getting a firm, reassuring hug before or during a stressful event, such as waiting to receive the results of a medical test, can help you stay calm because your oxytocin levels remain elevated. Research from the Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders even suggests that weighted blankets can relieve stress because they simulate being held or hugged. The heaviness of the blanket creates pressure points that relieve anxiety and lull you into a restful sleep.
In pain? Forget popping pills or that $100 massage. In much the same way that hugging reduces stress, it also decreases pain. Even a 20-second hug releases enough oxytocin to make you feel better.
2. They Strengthen Our Immune System
A hug a day may, in fact, keep the doctor away. In a 2014 study, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University measured social support in the form of hugs in more than 400 healthy adults. For two weeks, participants were asked about the number of times they experienced interpersonal conflict and the number of hugs they received each day.
The researchers then exposed the participants to a common cold virus. What they found was that perceived social support and hugs reduced the risk of infection. The more often people hugged, the less likely they were to get sick — even those who frequently experienced conflict.
3. They Make Us Happier
Hugging increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter known as the "feel good" hormone that is produced and spread by neurons in the brain. Serotonin helps us feel happy, calm, and confident. When serotonin flows freely, we feel good about ourselves — and the opposite is true when this hormone is absent. Low levels can cause sleep disorders and lead to obesity.
Many antidepressants are marketed to increase the production of serotonin. However, there's a healthier way: hugs. Hugging triggers the release of serotonin in the brain to create happiness and alleviate sadness. That said, always consult with your medical provider before adjusting your prescribed medication regimen regardless of these facts about hugs.
4. They Help Deepen Our Relationships
We instinctively want to hug those we know are in pain. When you receive a hug from someone you care about, it can bring you comfort, make you feel safe, and sometimes even turn your entire day around.
In many ways, hugs are a form of meditation. They allow us to be present in the moment, to let go and flow with the energy of the embrace. It's easy to forget how meaningful a hug can be, but it can truly deepen your connection with another person. Hugs convey, in a nonverbal way, an understanding of each other.
Don't underestimate the healing power of a hug. Just as we exercise to stay in shape and watch what we eat to stay healthy, we should make the effort to stay connected to the people we care about.