The Simple Gesture That Enhances Health and Well-Being

The benefits of sharing a hug are wide-ranging and rooted in neuroscience.

Posted Nov 25, 2018

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

In my twelve-step fellowship, we greet each other with a hug. Whenever I see my daughters, we hug. I’m not talking about a fleeting, drive-by, bro-style pat-on-the-back hug, but rather one that is substantial, sustained, and heartfelt. Hugging another person with intention and feeling is a powerful form of recognition, an unequivocal acknowledgement that he or she matters. It is often an indicator of emotional intimacy that says, “I got you,” even—or perhaps especially—in the face of adversity.

Physiologically, hugging precipitates the release of oxytocin, often referred to as the “bonding hormone” because it promotes attachment and strengthens existing bonds and relationships, which includes the bond between mothers and their newborn babies. In this way, hugging and other forms of caring touch likely emerged as an evolutionary imperative—facilitating connection to enhance survival. Oxytocin is a chemical of interpersonal connection, not only released through physical closeness with another person but also through other forms of bonding, such as eye contact, smiling, and attentiveness.

In addition to such psychological sustenance, hugging also provides significant health benefits, starting with its stress reducing, calming effects. Recent research demonstrates that oxytocin is associated with decreases in the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine, as well as increased levels of the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin (the body’s natural antidepressant). Moreover, there’s evidence that hugs and the oxytocin release that accompanies them reduce heart rate and blood pressure, increase feelings of well-being, and improve immune system function and pain tolerance.[1]

Physical embrace in the form of hugging is an action with tremendous bang for the buck. Engaging in hugs and other forms of caring touch, such as placing an arm around someone shows kindness; putting a hand on another’s shoulder communicates support. Caring touch has multiple physiological and emotional benefits for both people. It reduces blood pressure, lowers cortisol, and stimulates the release of oxytocin. Touching also releases serotonin, which soothes and regulates mood.

Caring touch is a primary language of childhood. It provides emotional nourishment—awakening and increasing feelings of calmness, trust, and secure attachment between parents and their children. Make time to connect with your children, regardless of how busy you are. Tell them that you love them—often. Too many parents don’t do this or only do it rarely, many assuming “they already know I love them.”

One of the ironies of human nature is that all too frequently, people make an effort to be more overtly kind and considerate to other people (sometimes complete strangers) than to their own families. They may be much harder on those with whom they are closest—partners and children in particular—taking the connection and relationship for granted. This was the case with my own father, and there have been times I succumbed to this phenomenon as well.

For five years during the mid-1990s, I was the clinical director for a hospital-based addiction treatment program that provided medically managed detoxification and rehabilitation for adults. In addition to supervising the program’s social workers and counselors, my role included functioning as a sort of vice-principal, dealing directly with violations of program rules and determining consequences. We worked with an extremely challenged and challenging population, and when patients acted out—which occurred in all manner of ways—they had to meet with me. In response to my usual intentional professional demeanor, with surprising frequency, they would ask me, “Do you ever get angry?” In response, I’d smile and assure them that since anger is a natural human emotion, everyone gets angry sometimes.

On my return home, I’d tell my kids that the patients at work once again asked if I ever got angry, to which my elder daughter’s reaction was a combination snort-snigger followed by an always incredulous variation on the theme of “If they only knew.” While I took considerable pride in my professional self-discipline, its incongruity with the liberties of laxity I sometimes took as a parent and partner only inspired self-reproach.

We need to be consciously aware of the tendency to take the people we love and their presence in our lives for granted and treat them less well. With this awareness, we are more likely to treat them with the kindness, appreciation, compassion, and love they deserve.

Parenting is a link in the chain that connects the past with the future. How did the way your parents talked to you influence your inner voice, your self-talk? Keep in mind that how you treat and talk to your children becomes part of how they treat and talk to themselves.

Every day, you participate in myriad encounters, each of which has an impact on other people, your environment, and you. The impacts of your actions ripple far beyond what you know or can observe, so with conscious effort, you can build more kindness, appreciation, compassion, and love into your actions throughout the day.

The size of the actions matters not; they all have meaning and value. Everything you do that is positive makes a positive difference somehow, somewhere, and in some way, especially with your children. As expressed so elegantly by psychologist and philosopher William James, “Let everything you do be done as if it makes a difference. It does.”

Copyright 2018 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery and Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain

References

[1] Stacey Colino, “The Health Benefits of Hugging,” US News & World Report (February 3, 2016) health.usnews.com/health-news/health-wellness/articles/2016-02-03/the-health-benefits-of-hugging