If the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have shown us anything, it’s that humans need physical touch. As lockdowns lifted and vaccines closed the gaps of social distancing, friends and families have embraced with more gratitude than ever, reminded of the power that a simple hug can have. From instant mood boosts and closer relationships to higher self-esteem and improved mental health and well-being, the science is clear that hugs don’t just feel good—they’re good for us.
The Science Behind Hugs
Humans have two distinct touch systems. One is a rapid touch system that consists of large, myelinated A-beta afferents. This is also known as discriminative touch, where our nerves can rapidly detect and discriminate contact with our skin.
The second is a slow touch system, which includes the recently discovered C-tactile afferents. These unmyelinated nerve fibers are associated with affective touch, processing the emotional aspects of a hug or caress.
With all the emotions and meaning it holds, it’s no wonder that physical touch—especially in the form of hugging—plays such an important role in both our relationships and mental health.
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The Benefits of a Hug
Reduces Stress and Anxiety
A good hug slows down the heart rate and decreases the level of the stress hormone, cortisol, in our bodies. In turn, hugging makes us feel calm, safe, and relaxed. The less reactive we are to stress, the better we are at regulating our emotions. According to one study, infants that receive more nurturing touch during their early developmental stages grow up to be less reactive to stressors and show lower levels of anxiety.
When we hug someone, our bodies get a surge of oxytocin—also known as the love or cuddle hormone. Oxytocin helps us bond with loved ones, whether it’s a mother and baby, romantic partners, or close friends. With a simple touch, the release of oxytocin can instantly make us feel more connected, reducing feelings of loneliness.
Not only do hugs help us feel closer to others, but they also help us feel happier with ourselves. In general, social touch can boost serotonin and dopamine levels, as well as release endorphins—the “feel good” hormones and natural pain relievers. Endorphins are most commonly associated with exercise (think of the “runner’s high”), but we can still get that instant mood boost from hugs. And in the long run, loving touch has been shown to create and sustain a healthy sense of self.
How to Make the Most of a Hug
If you’re not sure where someone stands on hugging, don’t be afraid to ask them. It’s important to be thoughtful and respectful of others’ personal boundaries, especially when it comes to physical touch.
To feel the benefits of a hug, it can’t be too quick. Otherwise, there’s not enough time for your body to release the oxytocin, endorphins, and all the other good hormones into your system to connect with your brain.
Hugging doesn’t always have to happen between humans! Studies have shown that cuddling with your pet has the same benefits as hugging—for both you and your furry companion.