Most of us are familiar with the experience of “skin hunger,” whether or not we were even aware it had a name. It's a deep longing and aching desire for physical contact with another person. Touch is considered the first sense we acquire and our skin is our largest sensory organ. Just as seeing a beautiful sunset can move a person to inexplicable tears, or hearing beautiful music can reach into one’s soul, or tasting exquisite food can tantalize and amuse the palate as well as satisfying one's appetite, being wrapped in the warm embrace of someone you trust can fulfill a wide range of emotional and physical needs you might not have even realized you had.
When you think about piles of puppies, sleeping kitties, or those laboratory monkeys forced to choose between a “wire mother” who provided food or a “cloth mother” that only offered sensory and tactile support—and who chose emotional nourishment over food—it is clear that tactile stimulation and close contact with others is necessary to our well-being. The almost universal desire to wrap tiny babies in embraces is an example of how we all long to be close to another. Yet as we get older, there may be fewer and fewer opportunities to satisfy our hunger for the touch of another human being. In fact, some geriatric care centers have begun programs in which hugs are provided on a regular basis to make sure skin hunger does not go unsatisfied. (Hugs, of course, are only well-received when they come from individuals in whom we safely can place our trust.)
What does all this mean for us?
First, we know that a hug can calm us when we are stressed:
- In empirical studies, researchers have found that an embrace functions as a protective layer against stress.
- In controlled studies comparing individuals who had and had not received a hug from their romantic partners prior to a stressful event, those who had enjoyed a warm embrace showed lower reactions to stressful situations.
- Huggers had smaller increases in their blood pressure, both systolic and diastolic.
We are calmed by the comforting touch of another. An embrace before facing common stress triggers can protect against increased heart rates. It’s been shown, too, that the effects of a hug can last longer than just the moment or two immediately after it occurs; one researcher suggested that a warm hug between romantic partners every morning can have a positive affect that lasts the full day. You can add a “one-a-day hug” to your “one-a-day vitamin” and really boost your well-being.
Hugs for Oxytocin
Hugs have also been shown to increase the production of oxytocin in humans; this is the hormone that positively influences our bonding and nurturing behaviors. Its presence in the bloodstream has been shown to positively affect older adults in assisted-care facilities. And in clinical trials, researchers found that individuals receiving oxytocin showed less fatigue, greater dispositional gratitude, and steadier physical functioning than those receiving a placebo. This suggests that the signs and symptoms of aging may be mediated by supportive physical touch. Some researchers have begun looking at the role of oxytocin in fostering the warm relationship between grandparent and grandchild. But regardless of age or stage, a hug is a sure-fire well-being booster shot.
Getting a warm hug of support from someone we trust in a moment of stress can instantly calm us; being the one giving a hug to someone who needs one can also bring you a surge of well-being. Humans need physical contact, and we all experience skin hunger that needs satisfying—whether you are cuddling a tiny infant or gently embracing your great-grandmother, you are providing a little bit of comfort, stress reduction, and healing.
Just close your eyes and say, "Ahhhhh.”
Alspach, G. (2004). Hugs and healthy hearts. Critical Care Nurse, 24(3), 8-9.
Barraza, J. A., Grewal, N. S., Ropacki, S., Perez, P., Gonzalez, A., & Zak, P. J. (2013). Effects of a 10-day oxytocin trial in older adults on health and well-being. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 21(2), 85-92.
Ebner, N. C., Maura, G. M., MacDonald, K., Westberg, L., & Fischer, H. (2013). Oxytocin and socioemotional aging: Current knowledge and future trends. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, ARTID 487.