A Hug: Powerful Medicine?

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

Nobody knows when the first human hug took place, but we pretty much know when the first hug occurs in life: a newborn laying and nursing in the arms of its mother.

What a Hug Really Means!

To hug: from the Saxon and Teutonic words “hog” or “hagen,” meaning “to be tender of, to embrace.”

We now know that if hugging continues throughout childhood and throughout life, both the giver and the recipient can receive many benefits. It’s an effective feature of affectionate communication in our close relationships. We just don’t outgrow the positive response to warm physical contact, as research indicates.  

Without getting into the variables of hugging, here are a few findings on what hugs can do for your health.

  • Frequent hugs between spouses/partners are associated with lower blood pressure, heart rate, and a higher level of oxytocin in premenopausal women. Oxytocin is a fascinating pituitary hormone that reduces pain and increases calmness. It is released during hugging, touching, and orgasm in both sexes. In the brain, it is thought to be involved in the formation of trust between people and generosity – a bonding hormone. In women, it is released in large amounts during labor, and after stimulation of the nipples, facilitating birth and breastfeeding, respectively.
  • Among 400 participants in a study who were infected with an upper respiratory virus that caused the common cold, individuals with greater social support experienced less severe symptoms of illness. About a third of the protective effect was attributed to hugging. “This suggests that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress,” says psychologist Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., of Carnegie Mellon University. “The apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy. Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection.”
  • According to the University of Arizona’s Kory Floyd, Ph.D., an expert on affectionate communication, there are multiple reasons to be more physically affectionate in your close relationships. He offers the following reasons: it’s a predictor of marital love and higher relationship satisfaction; it makes you appear more trustworthy; it reduces stress hormones; and it puts you in a better mood. 
  • Hugging can help reduce stress, fear, and anxiety, and even improve memory performance, says neurophysiologist Jürgen Sandkühler, M.D., head of the Centre for Brain Research at the Medical University of Vienna. However, he adds, “the positive effect only occurs if the people trust each other, if the associated feelings are present mutually. If people do not know each other, or if the hug is not desired by both parties, its effects are lost. This can lead to pure stress because our normal distance-keeping behavior is disregarded. In these situations, we secrete the stress hormone cortisol.”

Obviously, a modicum of discretion is necessary when initiating hugs – especially now during this COVID-19 pandemic. But, from a therapeutic standpoint, hugs are truly good medicine when dispensed among friends, loved ones, and spouses with whom you are not social distancing from (and you can always both wear masks as a safety precaution – I’d prefer that over no hugging at all!). Contact is wonderful, and perhaps even more so in our computerized, digitalized, electronic age. Unfortunately, today many people don’t even look at each other because their eyes are constantly fixated on some screen. And now, so many are simply avoiding eye contact with “strangers” who may be contagious.

I am a big hugger myself and I always recommended to my patients that they hug more often. It is good therapy for the heart and soul.

It is also very important to hug, if possible, and affectionately touch or stroke loved ones who are terminally ill or who may be dying. As I wrote in this article on dying, such contact intimately transfers love.

January 21 is celebrated by people around the world as an “international hugging day” to promote affection. My suggestion is that you don’t wait until January 21.


© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.

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