I was researching hugs yesterday. Yup, hugs. Most people know that I use Mondays as my writing days, but not everyone knows that as well as my blogs, I am also writing my first novel. Eeek. I have been writing it for over 2 years and am still only on Chapter 7. At this rate it will be published in 5 years! It seems a long way off but I am still incredibly positive… notice I said, will be published, not if it’s published. My book is not historical, nor is it a crime novel or sci-fi – genres that require years of research – but I still have to get my facts straight and therefore I spend hours in libraries and pouring over the internet to get my details just right.
My novel’s two main characters, Connie and Sam, meet in Trafalgar Square in winter. They meet because Sam is giving FREE HUGS and Connie is on the receiving end of one of them. This is based on something that actually happened to me, in exactly the same spot, about 5 years ago. The FREE HUG I received didn’t change my life in the way it changes Connie and Sam’s, but it gave me the idea for the novel. The entire book revolves around this event, this hug, so I thought I should really research why I think hugs are so important and also why scientists think we should be giving and receiving them more often.
The collective noun for teddy bears is ‘a hug’; a hug of teddy bears. The words are evocative because we immediately picture a soft warm comforting embrace. It may remind us of our childhoods, clutching our favourite toy as we go to sleep; it may bring up memories of hugs from parents as we say goodnight or be comforted when we hurt ourselves. As we get older hugs become more infrequent, not the everyday occurrences we have as children, so when we do experience them as an adult, either wrapped in the arms of a partner, greeting a friend hello or on the receiving end of a giant squeeze from a family member, hugs not only make us feel good but they make us feel protected and loved – even a random hug from a stranger can do wonders for our well-being. In fact, scientists have now found more and more reasons why we should be embracing the embrace.
1. A good hug is the fastest way for us to get oxytocin flowing in our bodies.
Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that acts on the brain’s emotional centre. Also known as the ‘love drug’, this little peptide promotes feelings of devotion, trust, bonding and a sense of belonging, so it might be no surprise that studies have also shown that couples who hug more often are more likely to stay together.
2. Hugs lower our blood pressure, our heart rates and our cortisol levels.
Cortisol is the hormone responsible for stress, high blood pressure and heart disease. In an experiment at the University of North Carolina, participants who didn’t have any contact with their partners developed a quickened heart rate of 10 beats per minute, compared to the 5 beats per minute among those who got to hug their partners during the experiment.
3. Hugs trigger dopamine flow.
Dopamine is the pleasure hormone responsible for giving us that feel-good feeling. MRI scans have shown that even an anticipated hug can stimulate brains to release dopamine.
4. Hugs stimulate serotonin.
Serotonin is a chemical compound which balances our moods and gives us a sense of importance and well-being. Reaching out and hugging someone can release endorphins and serotonin into the blood vessels, causing pleasure and negating pain and sadness. It can help with sleep and appetite as well as decreasing the chances of getting heart problems. Even cuddling pets or toys has been found to have the same soothing effect.
5. Hugs balance out the nervous system.
Our skin contains a network of tiny, egg-shaped pressure centres called Pacinian corpuscles that can sense touch, and when we are hugged, they change. The effect is increased moisture and electricity in the skin suggesting a more balanced state in the nervous system – our bodies unconscious actions.
6. Hugs can help fight off illnesses and infections – and boost your immune system.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania examined 404 healthy adults who reported their amount of interpersonal conflicts and number of hugs received. The participants were then exposed to a common cold virus, and then examined as the illness progressed. The results showed that people who received more hugs experienced less severe symptoms than those who didn’t receive as many, suggesting that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress and illness.
7. Hugging decreases the feelings of loneliness.
This benefits adults the most, according to researchers at Ohio State University, because hugging and physical touch becomes increasingly important with age. The older you are, the more fragile you are physically, so contact becomes increasingly important for good health. Studies have shown that loneliness, particularly with age, can also increase stress and have averse health effects.
So there you have it, hugging not only makes you happier, healthier and more relaxed, it also improves your relationships! What’s not to love? A good decent hug, however, needs to be in the 20 second mark for it to be truly beneficial. A quick shoulder bump or slap on the back just won’t cut it, so if you do get approached by a stranger offering free hugs, which I have, then let yourself be hugged for at least half a minute. It feels excruciatingly long, but just remember the good it’s doing you, and relax. If you are lucky enough to have someone there with hugs on tap, then make the most of them. At least a hug a day will keep the doctor away.
P.S. I would love to say the man in the photo was my ‘free hugger’… sadly he wasn’t!