There is something about the human touch. It can convey a wealth of emotion and thought without a word. We are social creatures and touch is part of who we are—it’s instinct. A hug can show affection, support, comfort, empathy, gratitude, and sadness. It seems the most natural thing in the world to reach out and embrace someone you care about in times of joy and grief. Babies need hugs for their brains to develop properly. But there’s more to a hug than the pleasure of contact with someone special. It’s chemistry.
Here are five reasons why hugs are so important to the human condition—and why opening your arms on a regular basis is a very good thing, for both the hugger and the huggee.
Hugs reduce stress levels.
Cortisol is a stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. It’s known as the “fight or flight” hormone, released when your brain perceives a threat or is agitated. A simple hug stimulates the production of oxytocin, a hormone produced by the pituitary gland in your brain. Oxytocin is “the bonding hormone” and it counteracts cortisol in both sexes and norepinephrine (another stress hormone) in women. Additionally, the hormonal changes affected by a hug reduce blood pressure and heart rate.
Unchecked or chronic stress affects your behavior and your health in ways you can’t always control. You can feel alone and overwhelmed. Stress is exhausting and you can come to feel that you can’t go on. When someone hugs you during times of upset or stress, you become immediately grounded and calmer; the connection with another person reminds you that stress is temporary and you are not alone. It’s no accident that when children are upset, your first reaction is to put your arms around them.
A hug provides support to someone who is grieving.
Every individual experiences grief in a unique way and every loss is different. You can’t take away someone else’s grief even if you share it. The circumstances of loss can be almost anything, with varying degrees of the emotions that result. From a paper written by psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes and published in the British Medical Journal:
“Newly bereaved people often feel and behave, for a while, like frightened and helpless children and will respond best to the kind of support that is normally given by a parent. A touch or a hug will often do more to facilitate grieving than any words.”
What all forms of grief share is the stages through which the grieving person must go in order to come to acceptance and the ability to emotionally and physically reconcile the loss. Since everyone handles grief differently and the bereaved may be unable to articulate what support is wanted, the unspoken compassion that a hug conveys goes further than any words can. In fact, words themselves can be counter-productive, regardless of the intent. Don’t wait to be asked for a hug—offer it freely and don’t be the first to let go.
Hugs make you happier.
Dopamine is another hormone released in the course of a hug. Low levels of this pleasure hormone are associated with depression and long-term neurological dysfunction. Research has found that dopamine also contributes to motivation and the ability to make rational decisions. The active ingredient for most prescribed antidepressants and medications used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a chemical that mimics dopamine in your brain.
Conflicts in interpersonal relationships are inevitable; receiving a hug goes a long way to resolving those conflicts and making the partners feel better. Further, regular hugging significantly reduces long-term emotional effects of conflict and bolsters self-esteem.
Just as aerobic exercise relieves stress and invokes the production of dopamine, a hug has the same euphoric effect—without the sweat.
Hugs boost the immune system.
Stress compromises the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness and disease. A 2015 study looked at the physical effects of social support and caring contact in the context of contracting a common cold. Subjects were exposed to a virus, then their symptoms and length of illness were measured. Those who received frequent hugs were less likely to contract the virus and if they did, they experienced far less severe signs of illness and recuperated more quickly than those without perceived social support and regular hugs. The results were attributed to the stress-attenuating effects of meaningful human contact.
Hugs reduce the feelings of anxiety and fear.
Anxiety, fear, grief, low self-esteem, depression: they’re all similar conflicts of mind that have negative effects on mental and physical well-being. A hug can mitigate even irrational fears, making us feel cared for, connected, worthy of attention, and not so alone on life’s journey.
Depending on the cause of anxiety (social anxiety does not lend itself to the giving or receiving of hugs, for instance), a warm embrace can quell unsettling feelings, soothing the nervous system and providing non-verbal reassurance. Being enveloped in another’s arms instills a feeling of protection and safety in every sense. (12)
One can argue that hugs are a basic human need; people at every age need the connection and comfort that a hug affords. They are easy to give and free. Regular tender physical contact has a cumulative effect to keep you healthy, grounded, and content.