On the 21st of January 2024 we should all take the opportunity to hug and be hugged. There are numerous health benefits from the simple art of hugging. So much so that National Hug Day was created to encourage people to hug more often. The date was chosen for a reason, being mid-way between Christmas and Valentine’s Day, and early in the New Year when mood is typically low.
What’s a hug anyway?
A hug is a form of non-sexual interpersonal touch. Rather like holding hands, it’s a way of displaying affection. Although we often hug our partners, families and friends, hugging has become socially acceptable between strangers – albeit with their consent. Even the politicians can now be seen hugging, which shows they can be warm and caring. We hug as a means of communication – to say hello, goodbye, congratulations, well done or to show encouragement before or after a competition or sporting event. And of course, hugs have an important place in intimate relationships.
When we hug, we put our arms around another human being, holding them close, often touching their skin, and sometimes massaging their arms, shoulders or back. As we hold them close to us, heart to heart, we become aware of their breathing. The minimum a hug should last for is 5 seconds. A good hug should last at least 20 seconds but can last longer, perhaps 60 seconds. In general, the longer the hug, the greater the benefits.
Humans are designed to get a pleasurable response from the close proximity of other human beings. A hug results in:
- Raised levels of oxytocin, ‘the cuddle hormone,’ as well as dopamine and serotonin, “the happy hormones”
- Lowered levels of the stress hormone, cortisol
- Reduced sympathetic (‘fight, fright and flight’ activity)
- Increased parasympathetic activity – resulting in pleasurable feelings of calmness.
Why is hugging good for humans?
We need hugs for survival. In the words of Virginia Satir, a respected family therapist, “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”
There are so many reasons to do more hugging. Research has demonstrated numerous physical and mental health benefits from hugs.
Hugging and the heart
Human touch including hugging is good for the heart. In a 2005 experiment, 59 premenopausal women had their oxytocin level and blood pressure measured before and after hugging their husbands. Women who had the highest baseline oxytocin levels before partner hugging also had the lowest blood pressure. These were the women who reported having the most frequent hugs.
The authors suggested that the effect of close physical contact through frequent hugging had a positive effect on the adrenergic system. This is a neural, endocrine and metabolic pathway that uses adrenaline and noradrenaline, in the control cardiovascular functions, which includes the regulation of blood pressure.
The social touch hypothesis
The benefits of human touch are plain to see – this could be the comfort of a gentle stroke on the arm from a friend, or a full-blown massage from a therapist which lowers stress. This is the basis of the social-touch hypothesis – that hugging or being hugged induces feelings of calmness by switching on the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS).
In a 2013 experiment, those who hugged the human-shaped cushion while having a 15-minute conversation with a stranger, had a greater reduction in cortisol levels than those who did the same but only holding a mobile phone. The soft skin of the human cushion was thought to be one of the reasons for its success. When we apply soft pressure to the skin surface, this stimulates specialised C-fibres found in human skin, which induces pleasant neuroendocrinological responses.
Hugging and the immune system
Stress, depression and anxiety are known to lower immune function. However, hugging as a form of human touch, improves stress, anxiety and depression, and at the same time, allowing restoration of immunity.
In a 2015 study, 406 healthy adults were assessed, and data was obtained about their stress levels, interpersonal tensions and conflicts, and hugging episodes, over a 14-day period. The group was then exposed to a respiratory virus. Those with the highest levels of stress were more likely to become infected with the virus. Those with the highest levels of perceived support had the lowest levels of infection. Hugging was estimated to reduce the risk of acquiring infection by 32%. The authors suggested that hugging has a buffering effect against stress and acts as a means of conveying social support.
Hugging and loneliness
Around 50% of UK adults say they feel sometimes, often or always lonely. Feeling lonely has serious health implications – it’s as bad for physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Many lonely people also experience social isolation and have little contact with other human beings. Hugging – with family, friends, neighbours or work colleagues – is a way of helping reduce loneliness. When you hug someone, they feel safe, valued and comforted, and they feel connected to others.
Hugging and stroking pets is also beneficial
Petting a dog also relieves stress, leading to raised oxytocin and lower cortisol levels. Having pets, and participating in pet-assisted therapy have been shown in research studies to improve physical fitness, increase social interactions and lower blood pressure. Some universities offer free pet programmes as a way of lowering student stress. Therapy dogs can help reduce homesickness. Interactions with pets result in lowered blood pressure and cortisol levels.
Even hugging yourself has health benefits
Interactions with self – self-massage, controlled breathing, and yoga – all stimulate the PSNS and lower anxiety symptoms, heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure. In the same way, hugging yourself is a good thing to do. It’s a way of showing kindness and compassion to yourself. You deserve love and appreciation, and where better to start than by loving yourself?
Or try hugging a cushion!
In a recent 2022 study, hugging an ergonomic, specially designed cushion, which contained a pump so it could simulate breathing, was more effective at reducing anxiety when subjected to an anxiety stressor (a maths test) than a control group who did nothing, and as effective as a third group who practised controlled breathing.
What about a verbal or a virtual hug?
Don’t underestimate the positive effect of verbal hugs. These are little sayings and phrases that bring a smile to someone during a stressful day. If you can’t physically touch another person, you can still send them positive affirmations and help them feel more positive and less anxious. You might print out POST IT messages such as
- “It’s okay to not be okay”
- “If you need someone to talk to, I am here to listen”
- “We will get through this together”
- “You are important to me, you are loved.”
Virtual hugs take the form of emojis, group messages or GIFS. These too can lift mood and help a person feel valued and improve their self esteem.
Getting consent to hug
Always check that the other person gives permission to be hugged, especially in the workplace. This is usually simple, – hesitate before you start hugging, keep eye contact, move slowly, and be ready to stop at any moment if the other person is stepping away from you, resisting in any way, or saying ‘No.’ It’s a good idea to ask –“ Can I give you a hug?”
Touching another person in any way, without consent, is viewed as common assault. It can also constitute sexual harassment. Unless you have permission to hug another person, you could be charged with a criminal offence. Take note of the following –
- Everyone has a right to their own personal space, and you need to ask permission to enter it. Some people do not want to be hugged.
- They may have a medical condition or an injury which means hugging can cause pain or worsen their symptoms.
- Since the COVID pandemic, we have all become much more aware of the need to keep our distance and some people remain anxious about getting too close to others because of the infection risk.
- Different cultures may have a different view of hugging, for example, those from China, Japan, Norway and Sweden are more reserved.
- Be aware that children need to give permission to be hugged – depending on their age and maturity, they may need to seek consent from a parent – and this is a good way for them to grow up and start to understand the principles of consent.
How amazing that hugs are so good for us, and what’s more – they are available free of charge, easy to perform, need no expensive equipment and are side effect-free. Far preferable to any drugs and medicines. If you feel stressed and anxious, why not go and find a friend or colleague and enjoy a monumental hug? What’s not to like!
Physical hugs are definitely the best hugs, but hugging a pet or sending verbal hugs is a good alternative. Any hugs are good hugs.
- How many hugs can you give out on National Hug Day?
Dr Deborah Lee
Having worked for many years in the NHS, mostly as Lead Clinician within an integrated Community Sexual Health Service, Dr Deborah Lee now works as a health and medical writer, with an emphasis on women's health. Dr Lee is a medical content writer for Dr Fox (Dr Fox Online Pharmacy). Dr Lee writes for many media outlets including Good to Know, The Daily Express, The Daily Mirror, The Sun, Bella, Cosmopolitan, Net Doctor, Healthline, and many more. She remains passionate about all aspects of medicine - including obesity, weight loss, diet, and nutrition.