As a biologist, Christina loves exploring the sciences and applying them to everyday life.
Benefits of Hugs
There is a scientific explanation of how hugs feel nice. Over the long term, hugs reduce the hormone cortisol. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is typically released in times of stress and exercise, and that release can result in immune system suppression and activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight response. Due to the fact that both parts of the nervous system cannot be active at the same time, the activation of the sympathetic nervous system results in the suppression of the parasympathetic nervous system, which includes digestion.
In addition to reducing cortisol, hugs also reduce blood pressure and heart rate while increasing oxytocin, the hormone involved in social bonding. Additionally, hugs create increased amounts of serotonin and dopamine, resulting in lower anxiety and stress. When there is already trust and familiarity between the two huggers, the benefits when compared to hugs between strangers are even higher.
Touch deprivation, also referred to as skin hunger, is a serious and growing problem in Western culture. Intimacy and touch itself have been so heavily associated with sex, that platonic touches like hugs have on average become nonexistent, and it’s still decreasing. In the words of neuroscience professor Francis McGlone, “ We have demonized touch to a level at which it sparks off hysterical responses... and this lack of touch is not good for mental health (Source).” In addition, touch deprivation has been linked to depression, self-injury, eating disorders, and communication development problems. Humans are a social species, and we have been since the beginning. For infants, touch promotes myelin growth, resulting in increased neurological development. This natural need for touch doesn’t disappear with age, but due to the absence of platonic touch in the adult world, it’s rarely addressed after childhood.
Especially in Western culture, touch has a higher association with sex than it does with platonic interactions. There is a common fear that touch in opposite-sex interactions is an indication of a desire for a romantic relationship; this fear is heightened in male-only interactions as well. People in female-only interactions, on the other hand, do not seem to be afraid of touch to the same degree. However, platonic touch is still not as abundant as it should be for the preservation of mental health.
This lack of touch is not good for mental health.
— Neuroscience professor Francis McGlone
Evidence of the Extent of the Problem
In an attempt to fill that absence, a professional hugging industry has emerged. From Cuddle Up to Me to Cuddle Party, there are numerous companies in which make a profit solely by charging customers for hugs. People are getting so desperate for hugs, they’ll pay for them. But they shouldn’t have to.
The solution is simple: just one person can make a difference by spreading the hugs themselves! Just asking your friends for hugs is taking a step toward combating this nationwide touch deprivation.
Theoretically, this is simple, but the execution can be difficult. I know this firsthand. Very recently, I moved states for school. Everything was new to me: the classes, the teachers, the campus. It was an entirely new environment. I’m naturally a huge hugger, but I still felt some apprehension about initially asking my new roommate and dorm friends for hugs. It was definitely worth it though; most of my friends on campus enjoy hugs to the same extent that I do!
It is inevitable that there will be others that do not want to hug you; this must be respected. Some of my friends aren’t comfortable with hugs at all, and that’s ok; depending on the person, we either just wave, high-five, etc. You should never touch anyone in any way that has not consented to it.
Hugs sometimes have a childish association with them, as if once a person passes adolescence, they shouldn’t hug their friends and family anymore. In the words of Francis McGlone, “We seem to have been creating a touch-averse world. It’s time to recover the social power of touch.” And we can recover this one interaction at a time.
© 2019 Christina Garvis