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Can hugging be good for your health?

There are a number of reasons why we like to hug others. Sometimes it's for comfort in times of sadness, sometimes it's an expression of joy, or perhaps as a romantic gesture. Hugs can be an integral part of our everyday lives, but did you know there are health benefits of hugging?

Before we look at the advantages, it's important to emphasise that COVID-19 is still very much present in our world, so hugging strangers at any opportunity isn't advisable for keeping yourself and others safe. If you are planning on giving out hugs (especially if reuniting with loved ones after time apart due to the pandemic), you should continue to monitor government guidelines on restrictions surrounding social contact.

If attending gatherings, it's also recommended that you take a lateral flow test beforehand, in addition to having had your COVID-19 vaccination and booster. Hugs can be great, but they're even better when you're being safe.

What are the benefits of hugging?

Improves sleep

Cuddling specifically has been shown to aid with sleep. Being held by a partner can provide your brain with a sense of reassurance and affection, allowing you to sleep easily. It does this by lowering levels of the hormone cortisol, which is a key regulator of our sleep-wake cycle. It increases when we're stressed and high levels of tension can lead to broken sleep or insomnia.

Reduces stress

Receiving a hug during a moment of stress can instantly help you feel calmer, but it can also provide long-term benefits. Physical touch and the soothing feelings it provides can make your body less reactive to stress in the first instance and increase resilience. This is because a nurturing touch produces higher levels of oxytocin receptors. Oxytocin is a hormone sometimes referred to as 'the love hormone', since its levels increase both during hugging and orgasm. It is linked to happiness, empathy, trust and bonding.

Scientists have found that this hormone has a particularly strong effect in women, causing a reduction in blood pressure and the stress hormone norepinephrine.

One study discovered that oxytocin had the most positive benefits in women who were hugged more frequently by their romantic partner.

Equally, hugging reduces stress by lowering levels of cortisol in brain regions that are vital for regulating your emotions. Studies have found that infants who receive high levels of nurturing contact grow up to be less reactive to stressors and show lower levels of anxiety.

Decreases depression and fear of death

Hugging releases 'feel-good' hormones, which include dopamine and serotonin. The release of these hormones into your body generates feelings of happiness and improves mood, lowering levels of depression.

According to one study, hugging also reduces anxiety surrounding mortality, making you feel safe and alleviating existential fear.

Psychological scientist and lead researcher Sander Koole of VU University Amsterdam carried out tests to evaluate the hypothesis that people with low self-esteem deal with their existential concerns by connecting with others.

In one study, participants were given questionnaires to fill out. Some participants were offered a light, open-palmed touch on their shoulder blade that lasted for a single second.

Despite the physical contact being brief, participants with low self-esteem who received the touch reported less anxiety about death on the questionnaire than those who had not been touched.

The participants with low self-esteem also showed no decrease in social connectedness after being reminded of death.

Koole's research notes that, even touching an inanimate object - such as a teddy bear - can soothe existential fears and provide comfort.

"Interpersonal touch is such a powerful mechanism that even objects that simulate touch by another person may help to instil in people a sense of existential significance," notes Koole.

A retirement home in New York actually implemented a program called Embraceable You in a bid to improve residents' well-being and increase contact between the older residents and staff. They found that residents who received three or more hugs per day felt less depressed, had more energy, could concentrate more easily and slept better.

Strengthens your immune system

You might be surprised to learn that hugging can boost your immunity to infections. Hugs do this by stimulating the thymus gland, which regulates the body's production of white blood cells, whose function is to fight off disease.

One study used a sample of 404 healthy adults to test this idea, by examining the effects of received hugs on people's susceptibility to infectious disease. Participants were exposed to a virus that causes a common cold and were monitored in quarantine to assess infection and any signs of illness. Among infected participants, those who received more frequent hugs displayed signs of less severe illness.

Lowers blood pressure

In addition to regulating your sleep cycle, cortisol also increases the body's blood pressure levels. Cortisol is reduced when you receive a hug and your levels of oxytocin increase. Blood pressure is also lowered by a type of pressure receptor on the skin, called Pacinian corpuscles. These are activated following a hug, and send signals to the nerve in the brain that helps lower blood pressure.

The University of North Carolina conducted a study with 59 women which involved talking to them about how often they received hugs and measuring their oxytocin and blood pressure levels. Women who were hugged often had lower blood pressure and higher levels of oxytocin.

Other benefits of hugging
These include:

  • Relaxing muscles by relieving tension in the body.
  • Easing physical pain by increasing circulation in soft tissues.
  • Reducing crying, and ensuring correct physical development in newborns.
  • Helping you feel safe and connected to a loved one.
  • Allowing you to communicate your feelings in times of distress.
  • Boosting self-esteem by helping you feel more confident and strengthening feelings of self-love.
  • Reducing feelings of loneliness and anger by providing a sense of belonging.

How many hugs do you need to be healthy?

It has not been scientifically proven how many hugs we need to be healthy. However, family therapist Virginia Satir once said: "We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth." In this case, it's likely many of us are not giving or receiving enough hugs - although, it is thought that the length of a hug is more important than the frequency of hugs.

Psychologists in London claim hugs should last between 5-10 seconds. According to researchers at Goldsmiths University, longer hugs were found to provide an immediate pleasure boost compared to shorter ones that lasted only for one second.

Is it beneficial to hug yourself?

Yoga teacher Sherry Duquet said self-hugging can be: "immediately beneficial in relieving feelings of anxiety and soothing your nervous system."

She emphasises that there is no wrong way to hug yourself, but what's important is focusing on your own self-care, as the simple act of wrapping your arms around yourself can help you feel safe, secure and loved. This might be especially beneficial while COVID-19 remains prevalent, as everyone finds new ways to boost their mental health and remain connected in times of uncertainty and isolation.

One way to hug yourself is to sit or stand up tall with the crown of your head pointed up towards the sky. You should take in a big deep breath and throw open your arms widely before wrapping them around yourself from side to side.

Grab your shoulders and tuck your chin towards your chest before opening your arms, taking another deep breath and starting again.

Duquet recommends repeating your hug several times while alternating which arm is on top with each hug.

Alternative ways to hug in a pandemic

As we are all aware, social contact has been limited throughout the pandemic. Life is currently more 'normal' than it was early on in 2020, with fewer restrictions on socialising and having physical contact. However, there is still much uncertainty around the virus and its new variants, which continues to create anxiety amongst people. Therefore, you should hug safely by wearing a face covering and washing your hands following skin-on-skin contact with someone outside your household. You can also practise alternative ways of hugging to achieve the health benefits while still protecting yourself and others against COVID-19. If you wish to, you can try:

  • Hugging a teddy bear.
  • Hugging a pillow (there are special body pillows you can buy).
  • Hugging a pet.

If you aren't comfortable with the idea of physical contact just yet, do at least try to keep connected with loved ones online, via video calls, or by remaining socially distanced and meeting in outdoor settings.

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