The Science of Kindness: Hugs are the best medicine
At the times in my life that I had been upset or angry, a good hug was usually a very quick remedy for what was ailing me.
After receiving a warm and genuine embrace from a loved one or friend, the tension in my body would melt almost immediately. And while my problem did not change in that brief moment, my reaction to it had.
I have witnessed the same in others — and guess that you have also. Imagine that someone close to you is giving you a nice hug. Can you feel the relaxation wash over you?
Probably why anyone with a sign “free hugs” often gets a lot of business. Most people know that hugs are a great antidote to stress.
How does a hug deliver such a remarkable effect so quickly? Touch is a powerful means of communication. Through touch, another’s intention is readily discernible — comforting or helpful versus antagonistic and potentially harmful. In the positive, prosocial mode, hugs are one type of touch that relays the message: “I care about you. You matter.”
Even, perhaps, for opposing tennis players at the U.S. Open.
We require touch with other living beings to flourish.
The importance of physical contact was painfully observed in the orphanages of Romania: children who were provided food but not held or hugged had significant developmental and socio-emotional delay accompanied by smaller brains. This means that physical contact is not only critical for how these children behaved, but for the development of the brain itself, something also observed in animals subjected to social isolation.
In people subjected to less extreme circumstances, touch affects the response to everyday conflict. Murphy and colleagues interviewed 404 adults daily for 14 days regarding their health, conflicts, how they felt emotionally (positive or negative), and whether or not they received a hug.
People who had received a hug and had an interpersonal conflict reported feeling more positive with less severe negative reactions on that day. They also showed evidence that hugging may favorably influence the rate of infection from a cold as well as symptoms.
As hugs are a great way to relieve the response to stress, it is not surprising that the number of hugs that a woman receives from her partner is highly related to lower blood pressure as well as higher levels of hormone known as oxytocin, colloquially labeled the “love hormone.”
Hugs, of course, are a form of touch that share elements with other types, like massage as well as gentle, light touch. Like hugging, massage is a great way to release tension.
Massage has been shown to decrease pain in a variety of conditions, especially pain associated with cancer, back pain, migraines, etc. It affects the biochemistry that mediates pain or sadness and can also lower blood pressure, reduce cortisol, improve immune responses, stimulate the vagus nerve and change EEG (brain wave) patterns.
In pre-term (premature) babies, light massage for 15 minutes over the course of one week caused significant increase in weight gain. Complementary to the studies of Romanian orphans, it is remarkable that massage helps babies grow, perhaps by changing their metabolism.
Taken together, it is clear that being touched in a loving and caring way cannot only decrease stress but can also help nourish the recipient and help them heal, recover and grow.
Physiologically, we observe activation of specific neuronal and hormonal mechanisms that decrease pain, lower blood pressure (and other markers of stress) and better physical and mental health. Nature gave us this remarkable ability to help and heal one another.
The challenge is that social custom and fear of inappropriate contact (and litigation) have decreased our interaction through touching. In a 1999 study of preschool children from Miami and Paris, Field noted that French parents affectionately touched their children much more than American parents. Associated with this tactile difference, American children showed more aggressive behavior than the French.
The discouragement of interpersonal touch is understandably heightened by the inappropriate actions (or reactions) of either the giver or receiver, especially in a highly sensitive and litigious society that rightly has concerns about consent and intent. Despite clear benefits of comforting touch, however, teachers, doctors, and many others have been admonished to be very careful about whom and how they touch someone else.
There are creative efforts to satisfy the need to be touched. Entrepreneurial “professional cuddlers” have opened up shop in different cities, offering a variety of non-sexual ways to be held and with pop-up events in different locations. And, as expected, there are tech-based solutions, such as a hugging vest, a chair that hugs its occupant, as well as pillows that hug and also communicate with your smartphone.
Japanese efforts are particularly notable in the tech approach, perhaps related to the degree of stress reported in Japan.
A complementary approach may be to allow people to see hugging or touching in a gentle way. Peled and colleagues found that when people simply see images of other people hugging, they exhibited significant EEG changes. The larger brain wave changes correlated with people who had greater empathic responses to the images.
This work is consistent with Envision Kindness’ own research: that images of kindness and compassion, many of which capture caring touch or hugging, are a proven and potent way to induce joy, love, optimism and connection. Thus, by simply looking at these images, people can experience lower stress and greater joy.
Viewing these images should be rounded out by the real thing whenever possible. So here’s a challenge for you, the reader: begin a regular practice of hugging others. Start with people you are comfortable with — friends and family. Try to give at least one each day — you don’t have to wait for National Hug Day (Jan. 21) to do this. And as you feel comfortable and the situation warrants it, consider extending yourself.
A hug is a gift to someone else. And remember, giving to someone else is also a gift to you.
David Fryburg of East Lyme is the co-founder of Envision Kindness. For more information, visit envisionkindness.org.
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