There are few things more comforting than a hug. A fuzzy blanket may engulf you when you are tired, and a steaming cup of tea may soothe you when you are sick, but a hug is always the perfect mode of comfort. It warms your insides and makes you feel loved, cared for and safe. A hug consoles you. It replenishes your soul and gives you strength. It insists that you are not alone. A hug is the answer to your troubles, your doubts and your fears.
But is there actual science to back up a hug’s famously wonderful reputation? As a matter of fact, there is. When we are being hugged, our bodies respond to this comfort by increasing their levels of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter commonly known as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone. This oxytocin surge evokes feelings of support and trust for the person who is embracing us. The higher our oxytocin level, the less anxiety and stress we experience. According to a study from the University of North Carolina, more frequent hugs and heightened levels of oxytocin are also associated with lower heart rate and blood pressure, especially in women.
And that is not the only way hugging can lower our blood pressure. Hugging is a gentle and warm form of physical contact that arouses the Pacinian corpuscles in our bodies, which according to “The Peripheral Nervous System” are highly receptive to changes in pressure. These pressure receptors deliver signals to our vagus nerve, which is an area of the brain that is responsible for regulating our blood pressure.
When we are young, our parents, siblings and family nurture us in the form of warm embraces, so we grow up knowing we are loved and believing we are special. These feelings translate to our acknowledgement of our own self-worth and the ability to engage in strong self-love. Being able to value ourselves boosts our selfesteem as we get older and life throws more at us.
A hug can even relieve our stress. When someone holds us tightly, it reduces the production of cortisol in our bodies. A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that a mother’s comfort in the form of a hug (or even just a phone call!) can significantly reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone associated with stress, so the lower the level of cortisol in our body, the easier it is for our mind and our body to relax.
And as we age, hugging becomes increasingly more important. The older we grow, the more prone we are to feelings of loneliness and stress as we start to lose the people around us. Because hugging and other forms of physical contact help to reduce stress, it is important for elderly people to maintain physical contact with others to comfort and calm them.
The average hug lasts for three seconds, according to a study of post-completion embraces between athletes who competed in the 2008 Summer Olympics. So, spare a few seconds of your time to hug it out whenever the time is right.