Science Discovers the Perfect Formula for Hugging
We can't hug during social distancing, but we'll be great when it's over.
Posted Jun 24, 2020
At a time in history when we could all use a good hug, researchers have just advanced the science of the ideal snuggle. Hugging is known to have myriad emotional and health benefits, but will any old hug do? The highest performing hugs have three components.
Hugs are a universal human behavior. Even in cultures where hugging is not common among adults, we all hug our children. It feels like common sense to hug our kids, but that wasn’t always true.
As recently as the 1970s and 80s, parents in the U.S. were still being instructed by doctors to avoid holding babies too much. Letting babies cry by themselves for up to an hour during the afternoon fussy period was thought by many to help them develop self-regulation skills.
Fortunately, no one thinks that anymore. Science has proven repeatedly that mothers and babies benefit from skin-to-skin hugging for months after birth. And it’s not just babies who feel better when they have a hug, we all do.
How do we give the perfect hug? Try a H.U.G.: Hold on tight, Until you relax, and Grow your bond.
Hold on tight.
A hug is more than a simple snuggle, because hugging involves a squeeze. When we squeeze each other, we provide deep pressure. Deep pressure is detected by receptors and sends a signal of safety to the autonomic nervous system. This turns down the anxiety we feel from activation of the sympathetic nerve, otherwise known as the fight or flight response.
The study of deep pressure as a calming mechanism was first inspired by Temple Grandin’s hug machine. Grandin, who had high-functioning autism, observed that cattle calmed down in squeeze shoots on the ranch where she worked. She decided to try it herself, and built a hug machine in 1965 when she was 18. This sparked a great deal of research on the use of deep pressure for those with autism, anxiety, or ADHD. But it didn’t take long to recognize that even neurotypical adults felt more relaxed after a session in the hug machine.
That’s because deep pressure also turns up the calm and connected response from the vagus nerve. It’s something we can measure, by looking at levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In one study children had lower salivary cortisol levels (the stress hormone) after receiving deep pressure therapy.
Does how hard we squeeze matter? According to an exciting new paper from Toho University in Japan, it definitely does. These scientists actually quantified the level of squeeze by subjecting babies to different hugs levels and measuring the calming effect.
Holding the babies loosely did calm them, but only a little. However, when hugged with a medium squeeze, the babies calmed way down. As soon as the hug got too tight, that calming effect started to go away. The study concluded that the best hugs provide medium pressure.
Until you feel relaxed.
Hugs are not only about deep pressure. When two humans embrace they release a hormone called oxytocin. Often referred to as the bonding hormone, it makes us feel wonderful. When oxytocin is released, it stimulates the exact opposite of stress, calming us down and turning up our social processes.
The benefits of hugging and oxytocin are so powerful that it’s been shown to help prevent postpartum depression in mothers, lower salivary cortisol levels in infants and lead to less crying, increase positive communication during conflict for adult couples, and help adults feel less anxious before public speaking.
So how long does a hug have to last to release oxytocin? According to the internet, the answer is 20 seconds. When I attempted to trace that claim to a scientific study, I was unable to find one. But I did stumble upon one study that I can only imagine led its researchers to a lot of giggles and high-fives.
This was a study in which researchers recruited 404 healthy adults and monitored how often they were hugged. Then they quarantined the participants and intentionally infected them with a cold virus. Those who received more frequent hugs had less severe illnesses. (Please understand that this does not mean we can rely on hugging to protect us from COVID-19.)
In the end, the exact timing of a hug may not matter so much as whether we feel the effects of oxytoxin. A hug should continue until each person feels the relaxation effect.
Grow the bond.
By releasing oxytocin, hugging deepens our bond with other people. But do we really want to bond with everyone? Some people don’t like hugging at all, and even those who are huggers are selective about who they embrace.
The researchers from Japan were curious about whether babies care who gives them their hugs. They measured how calming the hugs were by watching the babies’ heart rates. In the first few months of life, babies calmed equally well with hugs from their parents or from strangers. But once they were between the ages of 4 and 12 months, babies’ heart rates decreased more when they were hugged by their own parents.
In your own search for the ideal embrace, hold on tight (but not too tight), until you feel relaxed, and grow the bond with someone you trust.
An earlier version of this article was published on Forbes.com.