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.