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The Science Behind Hugs

I think hugs are underrated and deserve far more attention than they get. Being enveloped in someone’s arms is a far more potent antidote against sadness and other such feelings than anything else. Conversely, the reassurance we send out and the instant closeness we feel when tightly wrapping someone in our arms, is incomparable. What’s the science behind them and is there more to hugging than we know?

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To begin, let me introduce you to this hormone called Oxytocin. It is synthesized in the hypothalamus (a part of our brains), distributed throughout the brain and usually found in higher quantities in females. Oxytocin influences many aspects of our behaviours. Increased levels of Oxytocin aid in memorising faces and arousal while low levels are associated with depressive symptoms. ​1​

Image courtesy: NDNR, Endocrinology

Further, and this is the part we’re interested in, Oxytocin appears to be closely related to our sense and feelings of well-being, safety, trust and social sensitivity in addition to encouraging behaviours such as helping others, sharing resources, donation for causes, co-operating and working with others and volunteering our time for social wellness. Oxytocin also reduces the stress responses of our bodies and helps lower anxiety. ​2,3​

As if that wasn’t enough, Oxytocin increases our pain thresholds (the point at which we feel pain), reduces blood pressure and promotes growth and healing. Also, and this is important, repeated exposure to Oxytocin makes its effects long term. This feisty little molecule also promotes happiness in general. ​4,5​

So, the question therefore arises, how do we get more of this Oxytocin? Oxytocin release happens in a number of ways. These include warm, soothing touches, eating food and certain sounds and smells. Greater presence of Oxytocin is also found in the brain during the early stages of love, which explains why falling in love is such a great feeling. The same phenomenon also takes place when we’re bonding with our newly born babies. ​6​

But here’s the best part. Oxytocin is released when we hug, whenever people touch each other, when we lovingly interact with other people and with dogs, during massages and more. ​7,8​

In fact, a really quick route to feeling better after having a negative interaction like a nasty argument with someone is to, yup, get yourself a hug. ​9​

I suggest therefore making it a point to get about 8 to 10 hugs a day at the least. If you forget, set alarms, but get those hugs, and watch your anxiety, low moods and stress reduce, and at the same time, find your happiness, sense of security and loving behaviour increase. At the same time, practice mindfulness meditation each day, which also has an effect on Oxytocin levels. ❤️

References

  1. 1.
    Lee H, Macbeth A, Pagani J, Young W. Oxytocin: the great facilitator of life. Prog Neurobiol. 2009;88(2):127-151. doi:10.1016/j.pneurobio.2009.04.001
  2. 2.
    Ito E, Shima R, Yoshioka T. A novel role of oxytocin: Oxytocin-induced well-being in humans. Biophys Physicobiol. 2019;16:132-139. doi:10.2142/biophysico.16.0_132
  3. 3.
    Sumioka H, Nakae A, Kanai R, Ishiguro H. Huggable communication medium decreases cortisol levels. Sci Rep. 2013;3:3034. doi:10.1038/srep03034
  4. 4.
    Dfarhud D, Malmir M, Khanahmadi M. Happiness & Health: The Biological Factors- Systematic Review Article. Iran J Public Health. 2014;43(11):1468-1477. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26060713
  5. 5.
    Uvnas-Moberg K, Petersson M. [Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth and healing]. Z Psychosom Med Psychother. 2005;51(1):57-80. doi:10.13109/zptm.2005.51.1.57
  6. 6.
    Schneiderman I, Zagoory-Sharon O, Leckman J, Feldman R. Oxytocin during the initial stages of romantic attachment: relations to couples’ interactive reciprocity. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012;37(8):1277-1285. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2011.12.021
  7. 7.
    Light K, Grewen K, Amico J. More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Biol Psychol. 2005;69(1):5-21. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2004.11.002
  8. 8.
    Uvnäs-Moberg K, Handlin L, Petersson M. Self-soothing behaviors with particular reference to oxytocin release induced by non-noxious sensory stimulation. Front Psychol. 2015;5:1529. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01529
  9. 9.
    Murphy M, Janicki-Deverts D, Cohen S. Receiving a hug is associated with the attenuation of negative mood that occurs on days with interpersonal conflict. PLoS One. 2018;13(10):e0203522. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0203522

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