Looming over the myriad losses we’ve collectively experienced during 2020, the first cut was certainly the deepest: no more physical touch.
To varying degrees, most people have seriously curtailed the access other people have to them physically. Some have lost contact entirely and others have merely limited it.
While we know about the chemical importance of snuggling and what an oxytocin boost can do for our mental and physical health, and plenty of people identify “physical touch” as their most favored love language, the health benefits of hugging may have existed in your mind only anecdotally or personally.
But according to science, we’ve just got to have hugs.
And more than you think.
Virginia Satir, world-renowned family therapist, famously said:
“We need four hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”
Where she got that metric may be hard to quantify, unless we really get into the math of hug length, cortisol suppression, oxytocin release, and measurable feelings of safety and belonging.
Fortunately, there is plenty of data to encourage regular and sustained hugging in our lives – and not just that fluffy, feel-good stuff about how we’re social creatures and hugging is part of a critical cocktail in the bond-forming ecosystem. (Although that’s completely true and if you know anyone who thinks hugging is undignified, they may just really need one.)
In fact, there’s something very specific in the anatomy of a hug that can account for its benefits.
What’s in a Hug?
Unlike other forms of intimate touching – hand-holding, shoulder-patting – hugging covers more surface area… literally.
The very nature of its form allows for stronger pressure, more warmth and skin-contact, and closer energy than most other forms of casual touch.
When we hug, we activate pressure receptors on the skin called Pacini corpuscles. These corpuscles form large, onion-like structures in the skin and are sensitive to mechanical and vibrational compression.
When they get activated, they send a signal to the vagus nerve. (You remember the vagus nerve – the gut-brain connection.) The vagus nerve receives the calm signal and sends a cascade of signals to the brain which, among other things, tell it to quell the area of the brain associated with responding to threats and keeping on guard.
In other words, a hug tells the brain you’re okay. You can release. You can take a break from being on high stress alert.
There a series of other things that happen during a hug, but first and foremost it’s important to understand that, scientifically and chemically speaking, hugs pull the lever on the tension handbrake in our bodies and allow us to come down from our sympathetic nervous systems and into our parasympathetics.
It’s a great way to feel immediate relief.
But hugs also have a plethora of long-term benefits…
How Hugging Saves Us
Embracing is recommended for longer than 20 seconds for maximum effects to allow for a release of oxytocin, especially during this period of “skin hunger.”
Skin hunger refers to the aching sense of longing for touch we experience when our body’s largest organ, our skin, goes deprived for too long. Even if you didn’t know what it was called, the chances are you’ve experienced it.
Hugging has been shown to do all kinds of unexpected things – even reduce the fear of mortality in those with outsized-death fears and low self-esteem.
It’s also been effective in faster muscle regeneration in mice, allowing for more relaxation, less tension, and faster healing.
Giving hugs is beneficial as well – it can activate the positive maternal/paternal response center in the brain when you hug someone who really needs it, increasing your own happiness as well as theirs.
Plus, hugs are proven to reduce blood pressure and heart rate, lessening the risk for heart attacks and contributing to a regular sense of ease and calm as opposed to the high blood pressure that plagues most of the Western, physically-isolated world.
Sustained hugging can even help safeguard you against sickness, as one study showed that participants with a greater social support system who spent more time hugging got sick less often, and when they did, with less severity than non-supported, non-hugged individuals.
No one is too tough for hugs – science is very clear on this.
If hugs are outside the realm of what’s reasonable for you right now, make sure you’re hugging yourself to make up for it!
And if you think you could use some more hugging among the people in your bubble… don’t be afraid to initiate! You’ve got the weight of modern science behind you.