5 Reasons That a Hug Boosts Your Mental Health
Today is National Hugging Day where we are encouraged to give our loved ones a big SQUEEEEZE in an effort to make both them and us feel better. Now I’m fully aware that it’s not as easy to do at the moment as it might have been in previous years due to the pandemic, but if you can, grab someone from your bubble and give them a cuddle...and the good news is, if you don’t fancy hugging your partner, scientists have shown that you also get the benefits below from hugging your dog too.
It Reduces Stress
It’s a lovely feeling when you embrace someone, so it won’t surprise you that when you give somebody a hug (ideally for 20 seconds), it releases a chemical called Oxytocin. This is often described as the “Cuddle Chemical”. Oxytocin is one of your natural feel-good chemicals, you get it when you are in love, when you feel connected with someone, and, you guessed it when having a lovely big hug.
When you get a good flow of this chemical, the body feels great and so it stops (or at least lessens) the fight or flight response and puts you into a restful state instead (the parasympathetic nervous system for those that like the science bits). When you are in this calmer state, you are then better equipped to deal with potentially stressful situations because you can see them more subjectively and not as worse or more pervasive than they actually are.
It Boosts our Immune System
So, I’ve mentioned it reduces stress and that leads me on nicely to my next point. When you are stressed, your immune system goes full speed ahead to try and combat the perceived crisis, which you’d probably think is good right?! Well, it isn’t I’m afraid! It backfires and makes us more susceptible to becoming ill. So you can see how the humble hug can positively boost our immune system.
Professors at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh looked at the effects that a good hug has on the immune system.
Lead professor Sheldon Cohen said;
"We know that people experiencing ongoing conflicts with others are less able to fight off cold viruses. We also know that people who report having social support are partly protected from the effects of stress on psychological states, such as depression and anxiety, We tested whether perceptions of social support are equally effective in protecting us from stress-induced susceptibility to infection and also whether receiving hugs might partially account for those feelings of support and themselves protect a person against infection."
The study of 404 healthy adults found that those who were getting regular hugs became less infected when exposed to the cold virus, and those that were getting cuddles that did become infected, the symptoms were less severe.
It Lowers Blood Pressure and Heart Rate
I suppose the fact that it puts your body’s nervous system into a restful state alone is enough to start explaining how a hug can lower blood pressure and heart rate, but there’s more to it than that.
I’ve already mentioned that lovely chemical response, Oxytocin, which is produced when you cuddle, but that chemical goes on to create a reaction in the arteries that cause the blood vessels to dilate and therefore, reduces blood pressure.
A study by the University of North Carolina took 59 participants and got them to talk about their partner as well as fill out a short questionnaire. Some participants went on to give their partners a 20-second hug afterwards, and in those that did, it was shown that they had lower blood pressure and heart rates during stressful sections of testing that ensued.
It decreases depression and anxiety
I don’t want to sound like a record on repeat, but again if our body is feeling calm and relaxed, this will positively impact your levels of anxiety and depression. This again would come back to the release of Oxytocin, but also the release of a chemical called Dopamine which is one of your happiness and reward chemicals too.
When you hug someone, it also creates a feeling of social connection. We can trace the need to feel connected with people right back to our primitive days where we needed to be part of a tribe for our survival. That primitive brain hasn’t evolved since back then, although other parts of the brain have developed around it, but we still have that basic human need to feel connected and when we do, the anxiety and depression part of the brain calms down and allows the more rational and resourceful part of the brain to take the reins.
There was a brilliant idea by a care home in New York where they encouraged residents and staff to embrace each other more. The results were pretty amazing; the residents that had three or more hugs a day felt less depressed, had more energy, could concentrate easier and slept better too.
It reduces feelings of loneliness
It really doesn’t matter who you get your hug from (or even if it’s with your pet), having a good snuggle together allows you to feel connected and has been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
So straight after reading this, go and find your partner, your kids or your pet and give them a lovely big squeeze, you’ll both feel so much better for it.