“I’m okay we left at 5”
This was the text message I woke to on Monday morning. What…?
Then she attached the news story – Active Shooter at Gilroy Garlic Festival in California.
“Wanted to tell you before you got worried.”
It was about 5:15 AM and Ric had just gotten out of the shower. I immediately went to a very confused husband in a towel and wrapped myself around him. He kept asking what was going on, but I just needed him to hold me. My daughter had literally dodged a bullet. I needed the physical contact of one of those I loved the most to get my heart started beating again. I needed the safety of his arms to feel that everything was going to be okay.
Why is it that we seek out human contact when we’re under great stress? And, incidentally, we do this not only under distress, but also eustress, which is the excitement of the body caused by happiness or euphoria. Don’t believe me? What do we do when the New Year’s ball drops at midnight, and after the first fist pump and shout when the Patriots win the Super Bowl? We hug whomever’s close by. Hugging is ancient and virtually universal. But the answer to the comfort hugging phenomenon is not only cultural, but scientific as well. Hugs truly do have powerful healing properties.
Studies done by the University of California at Berkeley have shown that hugging releases Oxytocin. Oxytocin is the “mothering” hormone that helps in childbirth, breastfeeding and in caring for a newborn. It’s also known as the “love” or “trust” hormone. When it’s released affects our brain, making us feel loved, comforted and nurtured. But it also reduces the stress responses – the “fight or flight” reaction. Interestingly, the effects of hugging are the same for the “hugger” as the “huggee.”
In addition, one study showed that the release of Oxytocin through hugging slows the aging process and improves bone and muscle health, and may be a viable and safe replacement for hormone replacement therapy. Its anti-inflammatory properties can make you look and feel better as well.
Additional studies have shown that hugging boosts your immune response and prevents and improves prognoses of illnesses (including cancer), increases heart health by lowering heart rate and blood pressure, reduces pain and may help to decrease the symptoms of fibromyalgia (as a sufferer of this syndrome I can attest that this is true), releases muscle tension and reduces overall stress levels. More information about the physical health benefits of hugging may be found here.
In addition, hugging has psychological and emotional benefits. It makes us feel cared for and destroys the depressing feelings of isolation and loneliness. Hugging has been shown to reduce fear and anxiety, and may be used to communicate support and acceptance. Oxytocin also elevates mood and creates a feeling of happiness.
The studies have shown that 8-12 hugs per day are optimum for health. WOW that’s a lot of hugs, and getting your minimum daily touch requirements may seem to be a daunting task. But even brief hugging, and “hug lites,” such as a gentle touch to the arm, shoulder, back, etc., have been shown to have similar benefits. Ask friends and family for hugs whenever possible. Hug or stroke your pet, which also promotes healing. Be the type of person who is willing to give and receive non-sexual touch – however brief and light – often. However, be aware that some people (maybe you’re one of them!) avoid hugging for many reasons. Be respectful of others’ (and your own) boundaries, of course. But remember that in troubled and troubling times, sometimes pulling together – physically and otherwise – is our greatest salvation.