The Power of a Hug On Our Health

two women hugging

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There's no denying the power of a hug. If you’ve ever said you’ve felt starved for touch, you’re actually not that far off. The same areas of our brain that are satisfied by eating are also satisfied by human touch, including hugs.

During the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, many, particularly those who live alone, realized the impact of the loss or reduction of human touch in their lives. A consensual and desired hug can be a warm and welcoming greeting, a therapeutic and nurturing touch, and a signal of friendliness and care.

A hug helps us bond with others and experience a sense of safety, comfort, empathy, and calm, qualities many deeply craved during a time of uncertainty.

What Is the Power of a Hug?

What is it about a hug that feels so good? The answer lies in oxytocin, sometimes known as “the love hormone.” This hormone plays a key role in the female reproductive system, particularly in childbirth, and then, following birth, breastfeeding and bonding with the child. 

Oxytocin also has social implications—such as attachment, trust, and pair-bonding. Pair (or social) bonding is known as the desire of spending more time with a person. The release of the hormone helps facilitate this bonding by activating the pleasure centers in your brain. 

Hugs served an evolutionary purpose to help us know who and who wasn’t safe. While most of us aren’t being chased by lions, tigers or bears, we still experience plenty of day-to-day stress. It can be therapeutic, helpful, and healing to have safe people to turn to for hugs, comfort, and care.

Our nervous systems aren’t primed to recognize emotional stress as any different than that physical stress of being chased by a tiger. So it makes sense that in times of stress, we crave hugs—we want to know that we are safe.

What Happens When You Don't Get Enough Hugs?

Hugging activates the same reward centers in our brain as eating does, so if you’re not getting physical affection, you may feel like you're starved for touch. Not receiving enough physical affection is correlated with:

The Power of a Hug on Your Health

As humans, physical touch is very important and there are many ways in which hugging can benefit your health. Let's take a look at how hugs may positively impact your overall health.

Improves Your Sleep

A hug before sleep certainly beats counting sheep. While oxytocin doesn’t directly biologically affect one’s sleep, its anxiety-reducing effects are certainly related to improved sleep.

As it turns out, you can literally sleep better at night when you know you have that social support that the cuddle hormone is releasing. Feeling secure in your social relationships means one less thing for you to ruminate about at night.

A hug from a loved one can result in a decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone, as touch deactivates the part of the brain that responds to threats. The release of oxytocin has calming affects, which can also support more restful sleep.

Increases Pleasure and Well-Being

A study done with primatesshowed that touching created those social bonds that help maintain the social relationships that contribute to well-being.

Additionally, touch is biologically reinforced to be pleasurable, working on the same brain systems that opioids do, to reinforce rewards and create euphoria.

Improved Immunity

Good news for cold and flu season—hugging may keep you healthy! In one study, those who received more hugs generally got sick less often, and, when they did, it was less severe. This is potentially due to the benefits of perceived social support.

Better Cardiovascular Health

It turns out that hugging is good for your heart not just in the gushy way but for your actual physical health. One 20-second hug had the effect of lowering participants’ blood pressure in the moment, including after their partner had left the room.

Their blood pressure was significantly lower than that of the control group in the study who didn’t hug. The researchers suggested that this may translate to better stress tolerance, which generally leads to better long-term cardiac health.

Less Fighting

In a romantic relationship, the power of a hug is that it may lead to less fighting. If you’re in a romantic relationship, evidence shows that the more couples hug, the less interpersonal conflict they experience. It’s thought that this is because the hugs were perceived as a signal of social support, and so they blunted potential negative feelings.

Hugs also act as a general buffer against stress. Interpersonal touch is associated with increased attachment security, greater perceived partner support, enhanced intimacy, higher relationship satisfaction, and easier conflict resolution—all of which support a more peaceful resolution and less fighting.

Reduces Pain Symptoms

A hug or healing touch may improve symptoms of pain. Cancer patients who received healing touch reported less postoperative pain and narcotic painkiller use than those who received a back massage or no treatment.

Better Team Performance

Physical touch is even correlated with improved physical performance. A study that looked at the National Basketball Association (NBA) showed that teams that had higher touch rates (including hugs) performed better than teams with lower touch rates—because the hugs and touches proved to the players that they could trust each other.

Leads to More Self-Compassion

A study showed that oxytocin may help you be more compassionate towards yourself,leading to lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Those who responded positively were people who believed they had social support, and the oxytocin (even though administered chemically in the study!) only bolstered these beliefs.

How to Harness the Power of a Hug (By Yourself Or With Others)

First of all, any hug is better than no hug and there is no “wrong” way to hug! But if you want to squeeze all the benefits you can out of your hug, you can say it’s based on science.

A study found that 5-second and 10-second hugs were linked with higher pleasure ratings than a 1-second hug. 

While there’s no substitute for being able to reach out and touch someone else if you live alone or aren’t comfortable being hugged by others, there are still ways for you to activate those feel-good hormones that get released from hugging.

Give the Power of a Hug to Yourself

Go ahead—hug yourself! It probably sounds silly, but the act of putting your arms around yourself can reduce pain, and for a weird reason. Because, hugging yourself is not what your body is expecting.

It’s such an uncommon sensation that it confuses your brain as it tries to unravel where that sensation is coming from. Pain is then blocked because the signals literally got crossed as you crossed your arms over yourself.

Hug yourself the way you want to be hugged, to create the sensation you are seeking, for as long as you'd like!

Pet an Animal

If you have a cat or dog, pet them! Snuggling with a furry friend releases that cuddle hormone the same way snuggling with a human does. It’s thought that touching a pet activates your sensory nerves, causing them to release your feel-good hormone.

Stroking an animal helps build attachment the same way human skin-to-skin contact does.

A Word From Verywell

If you're feeling down or feel that you've been deprived of touch ask, your friend, partner, or family member for a hug so you can feel the positive mental and physical health benefits of a hug. Try also hugging yourself or even hugging your pet to boost feel-good hormones in your brain. If you find that you're dealing with severe touch deprivation or you feel lonely, a mental health professional will be able to help you address any negative feelings and help you cope with them in a healthy way.

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