By Rechelle Rozwadowski
As mamas, we all know the power of physical touch and a hug in soothing a distressed child. Our maternal instinct springs into action before we even begin to register what we’re doing or why. We’re quick to offer up a heartfelt hug when a friend is in turmoil. Our ability to empathise with them is almost intuitive and we know an embrace is, in part, a balm for their wounds.
Hugs can comfort us, welcome us, make us feel safe and loved. The humble hug has much to offer against the war on tantrums, in the fight against feeling low and in the campaign to help out our fellow human beings.
They may seem a small gesture, a somewhat simple act, but there is nothing ordinary about their ability to heal us all.
What the research tells us
Neuroscientists and a range of studies in this area show us that hugs or a supportive pat on the back can counteract the emotional and physical discomfort we feel when faced with a dilemma or personal crisis. The body’s natural mechanism to cope with turmoil is to increase levels of cortisol, but this in turn can be detrimental to our health and wellbeing, not to mention leaving us feeling like crapola.
Offering up a hug sets a chain of events in motion, which lead ultimately to a release in oxytocin, the body’s ‘bliss hormone’. We now know that apart from just making us feel a whole lot better, the presence of oxytocin speeds up the physical healing process, calms the brain’s fear and stress system, provides a blanket for our short-term memory and offers a sense of relaxation, in turn helping us feel more in control.
The surprising health benefits
And it looks like women especially have more to gain from both giving and receiving a warm embrace. Studies have found that us women experience significantly higher levels of oxytocin when comforted by human touch or a humble hug.
Of course the best bit about all this is that a hug benefits both parties. The huggee feels consoled, loved and safe, while the hugger too experiences a warmth and personal sense of satisfaction in being able to give to another in need.
No better proof of this exists when we experience child birth and the dizzying moments after, where the pain of labour all but fades into the background once that little human is placed in our arms, held against our chest, settled in that delicate yet special embrace.
Current research confirms that human touch in the form of a hug can:
- lower blood pressure;
- increase immune function;
- relieve physical pain;
- ease feelings of isolation and loneliness;
- help us to relax; and
- encourage an awareness of the present moment (mindfulness).
Why we need hugs everyday
If hugs can do all this and more, you could argue that it makes sense to practice the art of hugging and perfect its application. Renowned psychotherapist Virginia Satir claims human beings need four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs a day for maintenance and 12 hugs a day for growth. Wow! But even if you’re not into the number crunching, the list of benefits is enough to have us all hugging it out, round the clock.
Better yet hugs are universal, provide a non-toxic remedy, are free to receive and give and can be applied promptly with somewhat immediate results. Appreciating, accepting and offering up a humble hug might just be the secret to a happy, healthy and satisfying life.
Surely our greatest gift to give a fellow human being, be it our children, parent, friend or foe, is the sympathetic, consoling or warm gesture offered in the form of a hug. Go forth and hug it out!
Mum of three boys, Rechelle writes a philosophical blog about everyday issues women and mamas face at wilfulwoman.com.