During the pandemic, I felt as if hugs were a thing of the past. Ironically, hugs may have been what we needed the most during that difficult time. Isolation and lack of human connection made quarantining so difficult, for so many. The longing for human touch and connection is a basic human need, and there’s strong evidence that hugs don’t just make us feel good. Researchers have found that demonstrating warmth and affection can be good for our physical health, as well.
What happens when we are hugged? A feeling of calmness and relaxation is a result of the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin functions like a neurotransmitter in the brain. It can regulate our emotional responses and pro-social behaviors, including trust, empathy, positive memories, processing of bonding cues, and positive communication. Oxytocin can induce anti-stress-like effects, including the reduction of blood pressure, pulse, and cortisol levels. It increases pain thresholds, acts as a tranquilizer, and stimulates various types of positive social interactions. It promotes growth and healing. (The neurotransmitters oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine have been referred to as the “happy hormones.”) Oxytocin also carries a protective effect on the immune system, helping to keep us healthy.
Fortunately, we can raise our oxytocin levels quite easily, through making social connections and bonds. Try giving a hug, getting a massage, listening to music, or even petting your dog or cat. Note that there are no foods or medications known to increase our oxytocin levels.
Believe it or not, studies have actually been done on the optimum number of hugs per day. While that number may be in the range of two to four, my own scientific guess is: the more, the better. Sadly, so many of us are touch-deprived, living lives in solitude, or working long hours.
I would guess that, given these neurochemical effects, that there may be yet more benefits. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to locate studies connecting hugging to heart disease, cancer, and such. You can imagine how difficult it would be to quantify this in a rigorously controlled study. Nonetheless, I am recommending hugs whenever possible (with permission, of course). If a fellow human is not available, try hugging a pet or even a body pillow. I suggest that we all start giving and asking for more.