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What are the benefits of hugging?

Associate Clinical Director, and Lead Medical Appraiser, Bupa Global & UK
27 May 2021

Sometimes, actions speak louder than words. And a hug from a partner, close friend or family member conveys so much.

A hug is a greeting, a source of comfort, a show of support and affection. As social creatures, connecting through touch can have positive effects on our brain and body. Here, I look at the science behind hugging and why it’s so good for your health and wellbeing.

Hugging benefits everyone

Some research shows that you benefit from giving a hug as well as receiving one. In a study of 20 couples, the male partner received some unpleasant electric shocks (ouch!). The female partner held on to their arm to show reassurance and comfort. Her brain was scanned to see what happened.

The results showed that parts of the brain linked to maternal behaviour and reduced fear lit up. This was only a small study, like some of the others we’ve mentioned here. But it suggested that giving a hug can make you feel good too. Everyone benefits.

Oxytocin – the hug hormone

When we interact with others in particular ways, our brains release a chemical called oxytocin. This is sometimes called the love or hug hormone. Your brain naturally releases it when having a baby, breastfeeding and having sex. But it also releases in response to warm touch. For example, when you’re hugging or being hugged.

This can help you handle stress, improve your relationships and boosts your wellbeing.

Hugging lowers blood pressure

‘What happens when you hug someone for 20 seconds?’ is a popular question on Google. And it comes from a study that was carried out to show the effects of affection.

In the study, 183 people were divided into two groups. One group was divided into pairs. They held hands for 10 minutes and watched a romantic video. They then gave each other a 20-second hug. After that, they had to undergo a stressful task – speaking in public.

The results showed that those who received the handholding and hug beforehand had lower blood pressure. This was compared to the other group who also did the stressful task but didn’t receive the pre-stress hug and touch.

This suggests that a 20-second hug could perhaps help improve your heart health by lowering your blood pressure. A hug may also help you out when you’re about to do a stressful task.

Hugging improves mood

One study found that getting a hug could help improve a bad mood on days when you’ve had some conflict with another person.

For 14 days, over 400 adults answered questions about their social conflicts, their relationships, whether they had received a hug, and their mood.

The results suggested that those who received a hug on days when they had a tiff with someone made them feel better than those who did not hug. And hugging on days when there were no conflicts also improved their mood.

Hugging may reduce signs of illness

When we’re stressed and run down, we’re more likely to pick up an illness or infection. One study suggested that hugs could help prevent this.

Over 400 adults took part in the study. They answered questions every day for two weeks. They were also exposed to a virus that causes the common cold. The researchers monitored them to see what would happen.

They found that those who had been infected and received frequent hugs displayed fewer signs of illness. This suggests that hugs may buffer the stressors that can sometimes lead to illness and infection.

Hugging may reduce pain

Even giving yourself a hug could have potential benefits. In one study, 20 people either crossed their arms (a bit like you do when you give a hug) or they kept their arms by their sides. They were then given some laser and electrical sensations.

The results showed that crossed arms reduced how intense the sensations felt. The researchers suggest that doing this may disrupt how your brain processes where pain is coming from.

We also know that when we hug, we release oxytocin which also has pain-overriding effects.

Hugging without hugs?

Some research shows that even non-direct physical touch can have positive effects on pain. Therapeutic touch is a type of therapy in which a person places their hands over someone’s body but doesn’t directly touch them. It comes from the idea of ‘healing hands’. The person performing the therapeutic touch focuses on balancing the other person’s energy, to help relieve pain.

A review of research found four studies that supported this idea. And another study found that people with back pain who received therapeutic touch reported lower levels of pain.

Not just a human touch

Hugs don’t just have to be between humans either. Some studies have also shown that stroking a pet has similar effects. It can soothe, lower blood pressure, and reduce stress and feelings of loneliness.

So, is hugging important?

Yes, it is. The types of studies I’ve talked about above cannot prove for certain that hugs have all these benefits. And that’s because of the way the studies were designed. It’s not always possible to prove cause and effect.

However, they do show that there are positive links between hugging and health and wellbeing. And we all know from our own personal experiences, that hugs feel good!

COVID and hugging

Hugs, and touch in general, are something we’ve really missed out on over lockdown. As more people are vaccinated, the government advice is to take personal responsibility for who you hug. If you do choose to hug, there are some things to think about.

  • Hug outside – any particles carrying the virus are more likely to be blown away by moving air.
  • If you do hug inside, make sure you open windows and doors so that lots of fresh air can get in.
  • Get the vaccine as soon as you can. The vaccine reduces the chances of catching and spreading the virus.
  • Be considerate of others. Some people may not feel ready to hug yet. Others may be at a greater risk of becoming seriously ill if they catch coronavirus. You may decide it’s best not to have close contact.
  • Hug a few selected people rather than lots of people. The fewer people you have close contact with, the lower the chance of spreading the virus.
  • Don’t hug for too long because this increases the chances of the virus spreading. Though it’s also important to know that even a brief hug could pass it on.
  • Get tested. You can order free home kits that will give you a result in 30 minutes.
  • Wear a mask to limit the close contact between particles from your breath and nose, and the person you’re hugging. Wash your hands thoroughly and keep surfaces clean.

Otherwise, keep hugging as the research supports it. Hugs are officially good for you!

Dr Naveen Puri
Associate Clinical Director, and Lead Medical Appraiser, Bupa Global & UK

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