Why You Feel Like You Need a Hug From Someone

Two friends greeting each other and embracing outside a restaurant

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Hugging has a relaxing and soothing effect on people. Hugs are actually good for your health and science shows why hugs and touch are therapeutic.

This article begins with the famous Harlow experiment on touch, then discusses how hugs reduce stress and increase happiness. Learn what happens when you're hugged by strangers and loved ones. The article then discusses how hugs increase your sense of well-being, affect conflict, and boost immunity. It concludes with the benefits of self-hugging.

The Famous Wire Mother Experiment

Harry Harlow designed a study in which he took rhesus monkeys from their biological mothers. He then offered two choices to the young monkeys. One choice was a terrycloth surrogate mother who gave no food; the other choice was a wire mother who provided food.

Interestingly, the infant monkeys spent more time with the soft cloth mother even though she didn’t provide sustenance. The baby monkeys who fed at the wire mothers ate, but then quickly returned to hold onto the cloth mother. Scientists concluded that there is more to mother-child interactions than merely providing food.

When you feel a need to be hugged, you are wanting that same “contact comfort” these monkeys and human infants craved. It’s physically and emotionally crucial for an infant’s psychological development. As adults, getting that hug or tactile stimulation from someone we care about gives us a sense of closeness and well-being.

Hugs Reduce Stress and Increase Happiness

Not everyone likes to be hugged or touched in the same way. But generally, positive physical contact can effectively reduce your stress level and boost your mood. Feelings of loneliness and experiencing chronic stress can ultimately be harmful.

Hugs lower cortisol, which is sometimes called “the stress hormone,” in your body. Hugs even lower blood pressure and heart rate. At the same time, a wonderful hug with a family member or friend will also bolster the level of neurotransmitters such as dopamine in your system. Dopamine is sometimes called the “happiness hormone.

Hugs are one form of positive physical contact. Other forms include holding hands, being stroked, and getting therapeutic massages. Nurturing touch during the early years helps our younger selves regulate emotions. With high levels of loving hugs and physical contact, babies and toddlers develop in a healthy manner.

Hugs From Strangers and Loved Ones

Could hugs from a stranger even have positive benefits? In a study published in a recent issue of Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology, touch and being hugged showed positive results even when strangers hugged. Hugs reduced cortisol responses to stress and had calming effects.

Hugs and touch acted as a type of social signal for safety. They reduced fear and stress and gave participants a sense that all was well. Scientists consider self-soothing touches and hugs to be potentially powerful ways to cushion an individual from stress and build resilience.

Being touched by a romantic partner would likely be even more pleasant than a hug from a stranger. Because of the shared history, emotional closeness, and sexual intimacy a couple has together, a quick hug in the kitchen before one of you leaves for work could mean even more than a hug from someone you don’t know well or at all.

Hugs Increase Well-Being

Being hugged uplifts our mood.  If you are feeling isolated or are going through a rough time, a hug releases endorphins. Endorphins are the body’s natural pain relievers. These neurotransmitters increase our feelings of pleasure.

The release of endorphins is commonly associated with the after-effects of vigorous exercise. But endorphins kick in through a variety of ways. They are the happiness boosters that move us away from pain to pleasure.

While it seems to be just a simple, loving gesture from a loved one, hugging also increases our level of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone.” Oxytocin helps us bond with others and reduces the stress hormone, norepinephrine.

While hugging a family member or partner when we get home may seem like a small thing, healthy touch is like the glue that connects us. It underpins our physical, psychological and emotional well-being. Hugs actually enhance our relationships and bonding with others.

Hugs and Personal Conflict

Our bonding with others is sometimes subject to conflict. Hugs even help us during interpersonal conflict. In a recent study,scientists interviewed 404 adults every night for 14 consecutive days specifically about “their conflicts, hug receipt, and positive and negative affect.”

The study's results were in line with its hypothesis that hugs buffer against harmful changes in our emotions when we experience interpersonal conflict.

Surprisingly, the effects lasted even through the next day. Receiving a hug on a day of conflict with someone makes us feel good. But the mere act of hugging actually improved the next day negative affect (i.e., your emotions).

Hugs Boost Immune Response

Can being hugged and hugging others affect our susceptibility to infectious disease? Yes, according to scientists—hugs increase our sense of social support and lower stress.

In this recent study regarding upper respiratory infection, researchers examined the roles of perceived social support and received hugs in protecting us from stress-induced susceptibility to infectious disease. Researchers exposed participants to a virus that causes a common cold. They then monitored participants in quarantine to assess for signs of infection and illness.

They found that “among infected participants, greater perceived support and more-frequent hugs each predicted less-severe illness signs.”

Self-Hugging

If your partner or spouse is working in another city or your family and friends are scattered, you can’t always get the physical contact you desire right now. You might choose to hug yourself. You can thereby give yourself that feeling of being secure and loved.

If your goal is to reduce the sense of touch hunger, hugging, self-stroking and massaging are excellent activities to accomplish that.

Here are 6 suggested ways to self-soothe:

  1. Tell yourself positive things and give yourself a warm, strong hug.
  2. Place your hand over your heart and gently massage your heart.
  3. Softly massage your temples.
  4. Crisscross your arms and stroke the upper arms gently up and down.
  5. Put your hands on your shoulders and rock side to side.
  6. Rub your back against the back of the couch side to side.

The skin is the largest organ in our body. Sensitive to external stimulation, you can calm yourself and increase your sense of well-being through the power of hugging and self-hugging.

A Word From Verywell

Self-hugging and self-soothing create an opportunity to give yourself two other great gifts: self-love and self-compassion. You’ll thereby boost all the good chemicals in your body and make it hum.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Eckstein M, Mamaev I, Ditzen B, Sailer U. Calming Effects of Touch in Human, Animal, and Robotic Interaction—Scientific State-of-the-Art and Technical Advances. Front. Psychiatry. 2020.

  3. Murphy MLM, Janicki-Deverts D, Cohen S. Receiving a hug is associated with the attenuation of negative mood that occurs on days with interpersonal conflictPLoS One. 2018;13(10):e0203522. Published 2018 Oct 3. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0203522

  4. Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Turner RB, Doyle WJ. Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illnessPsychol Sci. 2015;26(2):135-147. doi:10.1177/0956797614559284