The Healing Power of Hugs

   By divinecaroline  Apr 04, 2011

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.

Several therapies have been developed around the healing properties of touch and embraces. Healing Touch International, Inc. is a non-profit that claims to treat maladies like stress, depression, and physical pain through practitioners placing their hands above or lightly on patients as they lie on a table. A man named Steve Maher came up with a practice called the Ecstatic Embrace, which involves ninety-minute hugging sessions and is supposed to increase self-esteem and happiness. For those who want hug therapy in the privacy of their homes, there’s a product called Teddy Warm Heart. Teddy is a small stuffed bear with an inner device that heats up and warms those who hug him.

Taking Hugs to the Streets

There are also those who apply the therapeutic values of hugging on smaller scales, such as the man who began the Free Hugs Campaign that spawned the aforementioned YouTube video. And would you believe people come from all over the world to get a hug from an Indian woman? Amma, which means “mother” in Malayalam (her language), has hugged well over twenty-five million people since she started traveling the globe and opening her arms to others. She’s known to some as the hugging saint and donates her time and money to numerous charities. I learned about her through a coworker who waited in line for almost two hours with an estimated 2,000 other people to receive a hug. People even brought Hershey’s Kisses for her to bless so that when they felt depressed later, they could eat a Kiss and feel better—like a sweet blessing to go.

My coworker isn’t a follower of Amma’s (a friend brought her along), so the way she felt about the hug—simply that it was “soft and warm”—is probably different from her companions. But whether you buy into the power of her hugs or the success rates of movements like the Free Hugs Campaign, there’s no denying that their existence and popularity suggest that we’re just not getting the amount we need in our daily lives. And what’s even more sad is that some of them might feel more comfortable getting a hug from a stranger than turning to the people in their own lives.

Psychologist Virginia Satir once said, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” I don’t know about you, but according to her, I’m severely deficient. Many of us invest plenty of time and energy in eating right, exercising, and taking care of ourselves, but in terms of getting our daily doses of physical touch, I bet almost as many are slacking. Everyone talks about eating an apple a day for optimum wellness, but maybe we should think about reaching out for a hug a day instead. It just might be the most economical health and mood booster out there—it doesn’t cost a thing and the benefits, like a brighter day and a stronger heart, are priceless.

Make a Comment

forevergirl29 by forevergirl29 | KENT, OH
May 11, 2011

I give out lots of hugs daily. It feels good and all humans need some type of human touch in their lives.

Outgoing1 by Outgoing1 | SANTA ROSA, CA
Apr 12, 2011

I love hugs - to give and receive. Sadly there aren't many people in my life to give me a hug and vis versa. Hugs are better than kisses and I'm not talking about the kind where someone taps youon the back. A real hug consists of a squeeze and holding the pose.

adj333 by adj333 | oklahoma city, OK
Apr 12, 2011

I would love to go out and give free hugs like Jaun Mann! This is brilliant!

Ladyreese by Ladyreese | Fernley, NV
Apr 11, 2011

Hugging is and has always been a big part of our family! I grew up expecting to always get and give hugs, especially when you really care about someone. I used to work in a domestic violence agency and I was known as the "hug lady". Gave them freely and often!!

musicmomma by musicmomma | LONG VALLEY, NJ
Apr 10, 2011

My children are very affectionate. They loved to be hugged! It's amazing how much more pleasant and loving they are when hugged a number of times a day.

lnfmiller by lnfmiller | Baltimore, MD
Apr 06, 2011

Just reading this post put a smile on my face! I'm usually somewhat reserved about giving hugs but I'm going to try it out and see if I can put a smile on someone else's face!

CheapCheat by CheapCheat | Kyle, TX
Apr 05, 2011

I hug as often as possible! I even hug people I've just met because I feel they respond better and feel more at ease!

mncar54 by mncar54 | apple valley, MN
Apr 04, 2011

haa ....Loved the Bed bug comment!....Sad to say ...I'd want a Hug but probably wouldn't because It's hard to Trust Strangers!! Great article! I'm Very Huggy with my Family & Close Friends & It Does Feel Wonderful & Helps my Mood!! ~Big Hugz~