Personal Perspective: There are many health benefits associated with hugs.
To reduce anxiety, a lot of people self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, or prescription anti-anxiety medications, but they forget about a built-in tool everybody has, a superpower hidden in plain sight that can calm anxiety immediately: the power to be held in someone’s arms, and the power to hold someone in your arms.
A personal perspective:
As a child, I needed hugs from my parents, and I remember vividly begging my mother when I was sad: “Please, Mummy, take me in your arms and console me.” But despite being a wonderful, loving mother in other ways, my mother rarely took me in her arms. She didn’t like hugs. As for my father, he worked long hours, and when he was home, the only person he wanted to touch was my mother.
On rare occasions, when my mother took me in her arms, I still remember it as being pure bliss. My head resting against her chest, I would close my eyes, smelling her scent, feeling my body moving each time with each of my mother’s breaths, and listening to her soothing, low, and regular heartbeat. Time would instantly stop, and I would be in heaven.
Then my mother would rock my body in her arms, and nothing on Earth existed anymore. It felt like being in a secure fortress where nothing bad could get to me. My strength and balance would come back, and I was ready to face whatever obstacles life had put in my way.
Not having those soothing hugs on a regular basis to calm my anxieties and being an only child left alone in a scary, dark room at night, I learned to rock myself to sleep every night. The rocking sound of my body against the sheets would prevent me from hearing scary cracks in the walls, and the back-and-forth movement of my body would calm my anxious brain.
But that calming effect was in no way as deep as being in my mother’s arms.
When my mother was in her 90s, I asked her why she didn’t like to take me in her arms when I was sad or anxious.
Her answer surprised me. She said that her own mother, my grandmother (who died when I was one year old), loved hugs and took her in her arms too often. My mother didn’t want to be in her mother’s arms, and as a consequence, hugs turned her off. Maybe my grandmother’s attitude was at the origin of my mother’s dislike of hugs, or maybe by nature, my mother didn’t need hugs. I’ll never know.
I am not the only one who needed—and still needs to this day—hugs and physical touch. A lot of people do.
Research shows the benefits of being hugged:
Aljoscha Dreisoerner and colleagues from Goethe University in Germany write that being hugged reduces cortisol response to stress (Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology November 2021). The researchers hypothesize that the psychological mechanism likely also involves increased secretion of oxytocin (a hormone that is important in social bonding and social learning).
Sheldon Cohen and colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh describe (Psychological Science, 2015) how hugs increase perceived social support, buffer stress, and decrease the susceptibility of people to upper respiratory tract viral infections. Also, among infected people, more frequent hugs and more perceived support predicted less severe illness signs.
Researchers at Nottingham Trent University in the UK show (March 9th, 2022) that nurturing touch changes electroencephalographic brain activity and decreases anxiety immediately, a decrease that can persist, in some cases, for two weeks after the nurturing touch.
Anna Dueren and colleagues from the University of London, UK, have done studies (Acta Physiologica, November 2021) comparing 1-second hugs with 5- or 10-second hugs. The researchers showed that 1-second hugs were perceived as less pleasant and less under control than 5- or 10-second hugs.
Indeed, Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, describes in her 2020 PsychologyToday article how the hug she gave one of her patients changed that patient.
But not everybody needs hugs.
It is important to pay attention to what people need:
It is important to be attentive to what people need, especially what children need. Some children don’t need hugs or need them very rarely; other children (like I used to be) need to be hugged every day and need to be in an adult’s arms when sad or anxious.
Adults sometimes only pay attention to their own needs but not to their children’s needs. A child’s needs, if unmet, could influence the rest of their lives. A lack of hugs in childhood could be at the origin of a well of anxiety in adulthood, anxiety that could last until death.
As for me, my need for hugs is still there. Fortunately, my husband loves hugs too, and his need for caring touch is as deep as mine is. We find extreme comfort and deep joy in hugging each other several times a day and in being in each other’s arms every night before falling asleep. I don’t need to rock myself to sleep anymore.
The calm and regular rising of my husband’s chest with each breath moves my head in such a way that my anxieties immediately disappear. An anti-anxiety pill would not work that fast or that beautifully. The warmth of my husband’s body and arms wrapped around me like a cocoon recharges me. The sound of his regular heartbeat next to my ear takes me within seconds to a safe place where the protective air is so thick that there is no room for worry. A simple yet powerful tool, hugs are healing for both of us.
So, be very attentive to your children’s needs, especially if they are different than yours.
And the next time you see someone with anxiety or sadness, know you can make a difference in this person’s life by using your simple built-in superpower: Ask if you can give that person a hug and if the answer is yes, watch the magic happen.