The Science of Hugs

A hug a day keeps the demons at bay.
— German Proverb

I love hugs, a fact that had my parents rolling their eyes and calling me a leech during my childhood. There is something safe and comfortable to be found in hugs. It’s a moment of security, a moment of peace, in an otherwise chaotic and pain-filled world.

Hugs generate more than fuzzy feelings though. The simple act of wrapping your arms around someone and holding them gently, stimulates the brain to release certain chemicals, most prominent among them dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. I know, strange Latin words, but bear with me. Dopamine is that happy feeling you have when you do something fun or pleasurable (that’s why hugs give you the warm fuzzies).  Serotonin is a mood balancer, and a lack of this chemical can cause depression.

Oxytocin is the interesting one. In addition to strengthening social bonds and decreasing anxiety, oxytocin has also been linked to pain relief. Let me repeat that: PAIN RELIEF! Perhaps you are familiar with its pharmaceutical cousin oxycodone? While not as potent as oxycodone (and obviously not available in pill form), oxytocin acts in much the same way by altering the brain’s perception of pain. Furthermore, oxytocin has a cumulative effect, meaning the more hugs received, the stronger the oxytocin release, and the greater the overall pain relief. Need suggestions?

Three Creative Hugs

Not everyone has ready access to huggable people. So what do you do if you live alone or feel uncomfortable asking for hugs?

Hug Yourself – This seems silly, I’m sure. Yet when you are in pain, your body will automatically fold in on itself, sinking into a fetal position. There is something that intuitively feels better and self-protective about this position, so why not go the rest of the way? Wrap your arms around yourself. Tell your body to hold on, the pain will ease, and that you know it is doing the best it can.

Hug a Pet – Pets provide love unconditionally and they can often sense when we’re happy, sad, or scared. Animal therapy has long documented the positive psychological effects of pets on people, noting decreases in stress, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Plus what is more comforting than cuddling with a furry companion?

Hug a Pillow or Stuffed Animal – In the 1950s, psychologist Harry Harlow conducted a series of social experiments with rhesus monkeys. One of his more famous experiments involved separating baby rhesus from their mothers and providing each infant with a “wire mother” that provided food and a “cloth mother” that provided nothing. The results showed that the infants all clung to the “cloth mother,” especially when scared or in need of comfort.

We now know that people (like monkeys and most mammalians) need some degree of tactile contact to grow and become functioning adults. Obviously human touch is the best, but a soft pillow or stuffed animal will work in a time of crisis. Even wearing soft, comfy clothes like a warm sweater or wrapping an afghan around your shoulders will help.

When it comes to chronic pain, any relief is important. So what are you waiting for? Go! Find the person, pet, pillow, or even stuffed animal you know who gives the best hugs and let science do the rest!