These are the words of the renowned Family Therapist Dr. Virginia Satir. Personally, I don’t think that quote could be any truer. Especially considering I recently returned from my first Fit For Service Fellowship Summit where I exchanged copious amounts of heart-to-heart hugs with a hug-loving tribe of 150 people. I’ll save sharing my full experience of that summit for another post.
I will remark, though, that in addition to the swapping of hundreds of absolutely amazing hugs, I underwent an exponential amount of personal growth in those few short days. So I definitely think Dr. Satir was on to something!
As a generous hug giver, I intuitively know that hugs are fucking awesome and have a full host of benefits. With that said, this blog post is actually quite important to me. In some sense, I feel like I have something to prove. Someone might ask how can the simple act of hugging be a biohack? Like … sure … hugs feel great but where is the science?
The obvious answer to that is if hugs make you subjectively feel happier, more connected, and less stressed, etc., then what need is there for science? That should be enough! With all that out of the way, I’ll hop off my soapbox and jump into some of the scientifically proven physiological benefits of hugs!
Hugs can reduce stress and susceptibility to illnesses
The intimate nature of hugs can actually reduce the likelihood that we get sick. I know this is almost treasonous to say right now in the fear-driven climate of social distancing, but it’s true. Obviously, I’m not suggesting hugging someone who is actively contagious. Use your own best judgment.
Otherwise, there are real scientific studies to support hugging as a health hack. A research study out of Carnegie Mellon showed that feeling connected to others, most notable through physical touch (ie. hugs) helped to protect against stress-induced illnesses. They also noted that the greater frequency of hugs received predicted less severe illness signs to those intentionally exposed to a cold virus.
This just goes to show that, as social beings, socialization is as necessary as the food we eat and air we breathe. Prolonged feelings of loneliness and isolation lead to a number of health issues including depression and weakened immune systems. So more frequent hugs might just be the preventative medicine we need.
Chronic stress is also widely known to be a significant driver of a number of debilitating chronic ailments including heart disease, diabetes, and gastrointestinal issues. In addition chronic stress down-regulates inflammatory response. This, in turn, increases susceptibility to viral and bacterial infections. So I suggest relaxing a bit, exchanging a few more hugs, and being happier and healthier because of it. If you are worried about a potential external viral threat (Covid-19) just keep your hug circle smaller and even more intimate!
Hugs stimulate the release of the feel-good hormone Oxytocin
Levels of Oxytocin, commonly known as the ‘Love Hormone’, increase with physical touch such as hugs. Oxytocin promotes connection to others as well as increases feelings of trust, devotion, and bonding. It also helps to contribute to lower heart rate and blood pressure both of which have positive effects for levels of perceived stress.
The longer the hug the more oxytocin is released. So consider longer more intimate hugs if you are seeking a stronger sense of connection for yourself and others.
Hugs boost Serotonin and Dopamine levels which also leave us feeling happier
MRIs and PET scans performed on those who were hugging have shown increases in the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.
Dopamine is widely known as a pleasure hormone and is tied to our natural reward system. Dopamine also contributes to feelings of alertness, motivation, focus, and happiness. People with low levels of dopamine often experience decreased levels of motivation, increased self doubt, and general apathy. If these are things you struggle with, then more hugs could help! They are an easy way to boost dopamine that doesn’t require an expensive supplement stack or illicit stimulant.
Serotonin is the hormone that is responsible for stabilizing our mood, well-being, and levels of happiness. Serotonin also plays a role in sleep and digestion among many other key functions of the body. Low levels of serotonin are linked to a number of physical and mental health disorders most notably depression. This is why Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed drugs to treat depression. If the idea of becoming dependent on synthetic pharmaceuticals isn’t your thing (it’s certainly not mine) I’d suggest more hugs before more drugs.
I think we all could use more hugs. They have real benefits to our mind and body which is why I consider them a biohack. It’s an act we can consciously undertake to make ourselves feel better. The beautiful thing about hugs is that they also provide equal benefit to your hugging partner.
We are slowly seeing the fallout of the current pandemic-induced lockdowns come to the surface. I believe the damage caused by isolation and lack of physical intimacy is going to be something studied and written about widely in the future. As social beings, regular physical contact should come as naturally as eating and breathing. It’s a basic human desire. Being that hugs offer one of the most intimate forms of non-sexual physical contact they are a great way to reconnect with others. As such, we need hugs now more than ever.
I know from my own experience when I am feeling down or stressed out I naturally crave hugs. When I do get them I often feel much better as a result. In addition, if I am already feeling well, a good hug leaves me feeling great! It’s a free, natural, and negative side effect-free high. What’s not to love about that!
I also recognize the ineffable feeling of connection that occurs between those I have hugged. There is nothing quite like the bond I have between the people I have had powerful 30+ second heart-to-heart hugs with. Of which I have had plenty in the last few weeks and they have all been amazing. Try one of these for yourself (with someone who is into it and not all awkward about it) and you’ll know what I am talking about. Just make it your own N=1 scientific study.
I truly hope you can give someone you love a hug today. It’ll be good for you both.
How to give a proper Heart-to-Heart hug
There are many types of hugs out there. These include the often lampooned side hug, the almost always awkward hug from behind, and the overly romantic hug around the waist. There is one hug that stands above them all and is the most heart felt (literally) and genuinely amazing hug out there. It’s the Heart-to-Heart hug and it is something I should have received a Phd in at the Fit For Service Summit I attended.
Unfortunately, scientists haven’t dedicated resources on making a nice peer reviewed study on this one. Maybe they are too busy researching more pressing issues. Or they haven’t found a way to quantify bliss. This one you have to feel on your own, it’s a spiritual experience in that sense, and then come to your own conclusions on its efficacy.
How to Heart-to-Heart Hug Steps:
- Step 1
Make sure your hugging partner understands what a Heart-to-Heart hug is and fully consents to it.
- Step 2
Begin by approaching your hugging partner with direct eye contact and smile. Like really peer into their soul and smile like you mean it!
- Step 3
Lead into the hug with your left arm raised so that it wraps over the right shoulder of your hugging partner. Your left hand should end up around the left shoulder blade of your hugging partner (actual results will vary based on how big you each are).
Note: This may be a little awkward to get used to at first. Most people are conditioned to hug the opposite way as it comes more naturally to the right handed dominant population.
- Step 4
Your right arm should then fall just below your hugging partner’s raised left arm wrapping around their back. The right arm should land below your left across the midsection of your partners back. You can then gently rest your head on your partners right shoulder.
- Step 5
Both you and your partner should then pull each other in closer. At this point your hearts should be touching based on the hug setup. The hug should be firm but not quite squeezing. No air hands!
- Step 6
Just keep hugging and breathe! Try to let go of your thoughts and just feel. Remain silent. Feel for their heartbeat. Look for the subtle changes in energies. Notice how you feel, and consciously acknowledge and release any judgement about how long the hug has been. There should be no rush to end this hug. These hugs can last 30 seconds or more!
- Step 7
When you or your partner are ready to let go of the hug, signal this by giving a quick double tap on their back with one of your hands, release, and then step away.
- Step 8
End your hug ceremony by smiling and thanking your partner, bask in the feeling for a bit if you can, and then go about your day.
I hope you found this post useful and enjoyable! If you did please share it and/or leave a comment below with your own experience with hugs. Thank you for reading!