Hug Your Way to a Healthier You
Vicki Santillano | DivineCaroline
December 27, 2010
About a year ago, I stumbled across a YouTube video showing two guys and a girl holding up signs that said “Free Hugs” in the middle of a crowded downtown street. I’ll admit, my initial reaction was, “What if they have bed bugs?!” (Sadly, that’s what happens when you live in a city with an infestation problem.) But the more I watched, the more I wished I was on that street getting some hug action. Everyone on the receiving end, even those who approached tentatively, walked away with big, grateful smiles.
What is it about hugs that make them so stress-relieving, even when they come from complete strangers? When we’re feeling low, getting a gentle squeeze provides comfort like nothing else. There are even therapeutic practices centered on hugging. When it comes to our health, turns out the best thing we can do is open our arms.
A Hug a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
Though humans are inherently social, we shy away from physical contact in this country. Compared to other cultures, we tend to be hyper aware of personal space, offering a handshake instead of a kiss on the cheek and keeping a certain amount of distance between us and those we converse with. Unfortunately, the lack of touch in our lives is detrimental to our well-being. We need physical contact to feel connected to something other than ourselves and to feel a little less alone, especially in times of need. But when we’re stressed out or sad, we turn to a number of other coping mechanisms instead, like eating comfort food, getting a drink at the bar, and tuning out in front of the TV.
If you wonder about the social acceptability of hugging, just imagine asking your coworker or neighbor for one at the end of a tough day. In fact, countless studies have proven that hugging lowers stress levels and improves moods better than most things. A study at the University of North Carolina found that levels of cortisol, the hormone produced when we’re under stress, were significantly lowered (particularly in women) when subjects hugged their partners for at least twenty seconds.
Researchers from the University of Carolina study also found that hugging instigates an elevated release of oxytocin, which is known as the “bonding” or “cuddle” hormone and prompts loving and caring feelings. Some studies have shown that it also reduces blood pressure. Another study that took place in 2000 showed that hugging babies while they were given blood tests made them cry less and kept their heart rates steadier. Both elevated levels of cortisol and high blood pressure have been linked to various diseases, including heart disease, so not only does hugging feel great, it’s good for our hearts, too.