Hugs For The Holidays

Why physical touch is so important to reducing holiday stress.

Posted Dec 19, 2017

Source: Pixabay/StockSnap

We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.
-Virginia Satir

You may not think of touch as a human need. But it is.

We actually need physical touch for healthy emotional and physical development. And it is especially important to hug during the holiday season. Why? Because for most of us, the holidays are stressful. In a recent study of 786 adults published by the American Psychological Association, over 60% reported feeling fatigue and stress often or sometimes during the holiday season (APA, 2016). 

Holiday stress comes from many sources. Family dynamics can be challenging, bringing to light unresolved family conflicts and complications. Exposure to and consumption of more unhealthy food and drinks can be difficult to balance. We often feel financial strain from unusually high spending. And, we miss loved ones who are no longer a part of our daily life, including our ex’s, former friends, and those who have died.

In fact, research suggests that we are more likely to die around Christmas and New Years than on any other days of the year. For example, a seminole study investigating over 57 million U.S. death certificates from 1979-2004 found that there are more dead-on-arrival emergency room fatalities from natural causes on December 25, 26 and January 1 than on any other days of the year (Phillips, Barker, & Brewer, 2010). Although the reason for this spike continues to be investigated, it is likely that stress is a contributing factor.

Why is physical touch so important to reducing holiday stress?

Emerging neurobiologial research suggests that physical touch releases oxytocin in the body.  Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter and has anti-stress effects on the body, such as reducing blood pressure and cortisol levels. Although oxytocin can be released by various stimulants, touch is one of the easiest ways to release it. During his TED talk, Dr. Paul Zak argues that people who get at least 8 hugs a day report feeling more connected to others and happier than those without such contact. Increasing oxytocin levels and decreasing cortisol levels—which can be achieved by hugs and touch—can help with holiday stress.

Furthermore, a lack of touch can actually psychologically and biologically harm you. Research conducted primarily out of Romanian orphanages (see here for a review), pioneered in the 1940’s by Rene Spitz, shows that children who were not touched (held, caressed, rocked)—even if they had basic food, water, and shelter—experienced horrible developmental problems over time. For example, many of these orphaned children experienced severe self-soothing behavior (rocking), attachment disorders and issues with trust, cognitive delays, stunted growth, immune issues, and even death. All due to touch deprivation.

Finally, physical touch helps us feel socially bonded and connected to others. A large body of research suggests that social support is a very powerful protective factor against negative emotional and physical illness. For example, a large-scale review of 81 studies found that social support has positive associations with cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune system functioning.

The Naked Truth is This: Touch is a human need. During the holidays, when we often encounter additional stress, make an extra effort to give and receive healthy touch. Give your neighbor or friend a hug. Get a massage. Cuddle your pet. Anything to get 8-12 hugs a day.

About the Author

Cortney Warren, Ph.D., is an associate adjunct professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the author of Lies We Tell Ourselves: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

More Posts