Your skin is your body's largest organ. It is also the fastest growing; it regenerates at an amazing rate—you sport a new coat of it every month. Skin acts as our body’s defense against the external world, as well as our brain’s collector of external data. The tips of our fingers, the soles of our feet, and our lips are designed to pick up the most precise pieces of sensory data, and have intense concentrations of nerve endings just for that purpose.
And a hug provides complex responses that warm our heart and make us feel better.
Even seemingly pure physiological reactions don’t happen in a vacuum—our affective antennae also gather information that informs our responses to circumstances charged with affective and cognitive complexity. The messages that nerve endings send take on another level of sophistication as the body responds at multiple points of activity.
Researchers discovered that when we are exposed to stress, our bodies react through the production of the hormone cortisol. This hormone shows up when we’re stressed, and effectively slows down the actual healing process while it creates “flashbulb” memories of circumstances that we want to avoid in the future. When we experience social rejection, cortisol is released and its effects include making us more willing to make new friends and build new connections (Komienko et al., 2016). This may account for the camaraderie that develops among military troops or people stuck in an elevator together, as well as the community connection that we feel with others when natural disasters happen. Stress drives us to seek supportive alliances with those who can protect us, or at least comfort us.
When most of us see people in distress, our empathy kicks into gear and drives us to reach out—figuratively and literally—to comfort the wounded, whether they are victims of terror, disaster, or everyday hassles of heartache or stress. Once you reach out and offer a hand, a pat on the back, or a supportive embrace, you set in motion the body’s own means to a natural high—oxytocin production (Gouin et al., 2010).
Oxytocin is a neurochemical that helps us build trust, that somewhat “dissolves” short-term memory, and that makes you feel, well, warm all over. Not only that, but researchers have found that the presence of oxytocin actually speeds the physical healing of wounds. Studies show that even a brief touch of the hand from someone who cares can start your oxytocin pumping. So when you offer a bear hug to someone in pain, or receive a big old bear hug when you are in pain, you not only begin the healing process, but you also allow your body to shut down memories of the painful stimulus. For example, a new mother’s memories of labor are eased as soon as her newborn is placed in her arms and oxytocin rushes through her body. Oxytocin encourages us to warm up to others and creates a sense of safety.
If you give to a charity, you often experience feelings of pride and satisfaction: You’ve done something good and that makes you feel good. (Whether it really should or not is a different discussion.) However, when we see people in pain, most of us respond with a sense of empathy—we feel the wounded person’s pain as if we were in their shoes. When you feel empathy and, to a degree, experience someone else's pain, you might need a big hug as much as the wounded soul does.
Skin contact is essential for our overall well-being; research shows that “skin hunger” actually does exist. Stress causes our bodies to produce cortisol, which increases the likelihood that new social alliances or connections can develop. Oxytocin production amps up when we are touched by another caring human. Our bodies are made to provide and respond to physical comfort, so next time you see someone in pain or feel as if the world is crumbling around you, open yourself to a hug.
The healing process begins with a touch and embrace. It’s just that simple.
Gouin JP, Carter CS, Pournajafi-Nazarloo H, Glaser R, Malarkey WB, Loving TJ, Stowell J, Kiecolt-Glaser JK (Aug 2010). Marital behavior, oxytocin, vasopressin, and wound healing. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35 (7): 1082–90