Defined as “the act of holding another person tightly with ones arms, typically to express affection”, a hug is a universal gesture, common to all ages.
Since the world became caught up in the maelstrom of the Covid-19 however, hugs have been in short supply. As part of social distancing measures, we have all been advised not to have close physical contact with others outside our immediate household, with the result that a hug between members of extended family, or close friends has been effectively outlawed.
Countless posts on social media demonstrate that as a society, we have found this hard.
But why? What is it about hugs that we, as people, need so much?
It’s definitely not a modern phenomenon, and up until now it probably wasn’t anything we gave too much thought to.
It isn’t just humans that use hugs to connect socially, other mammals hug, or have a species-specific equivalent, though they may look quite different – some baboons have a weird bottom grabbing hug, and capuchins stick a finger in each others’ eye socket, while those of us with cats or dogs can attest to the amount of sniffing that goes on!
These social gestures are old, then, evolutionarily speaking, which suggests that they are really important for groups of animals to function, and indeed, they seem to help maintain harmony and a sense of order within a group.
They allow group members to get close enough to sniff each other, allowing them to determine fertility or relationship, and keep tabs on who is more important, or in charge.
As humans, our verbal skills and intellectual ability to keep track of relationships have taken over from using our noses, but we have retained hugs for their other purpose – trust.
Getting that close to another person (or animal) puts us in the danger zone of being open to attack, whether by teeth, claws or weaponry, so physical contact between members of a group signifies a level of trust and faith in them not to hurt us. Early man might have had wooden clubs, or later, flint axes to hand, so permitting proximity was a big deal when it came to one another. Those bottom grabbing baboons literally put their ability to create life in the hands of each other, with their genitals so exposed, while the capuchins are open to infection from grubby claws.
Interestingly, this risk of infection seems to affect how different human cultures express their trust and affections – in the developed west we are huggers, and kissers; but in less developed areas of the world with lots of infectious (and untreatable) pathogens, cultural or tribal greeting rituals tend to involve less intimate contact (or bodily fluids!)
But back to hugs.
Having evolved as a society to greet each other this way, we have found it hard, unnatural even, to regress back to simply verbal greetings – as a tactile person, I find it really awkward to greet family, friends and colleagues with a simple nod, or the weird elbow bump we are encouraged to use in place of a handshake! It feels more distant and less satisfying than I am used to.
And it’s the ‘satisfaction’ element that intrigues me. I feel as though I am not getting something from that simple exchange that I am used to.
As a pharmacist with science training and latterly a hypnotherapist with added neuroscience research, I know that what I’m missing out on is oxytocin.
Oxytocin is unusual in that as one substance, it has wildly differing roles within the body.
In labour, it acts to promote muscle contractions in the uterus and help birth. It acts as a neurotransmitter within the brain. It acts to relax the blood vessel walls and lower blood pressure. It initiates the release of milk when babies feed. It may even have an effect on our appetite, and reduce drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
All very interesting, but as a non-pregnant, non-breastfeeding, non-drug taking nearly 50 year old with annoyingly good blood pressure that’s not really what I miss from a hug with my close friends.
What I miss when I don’t get to hug my friends are the psychological effects of oxytocin. It’s not called the ‘love hormone’ or the ‘cuddle chemical’ for nothing!
Oxytocin is responsible for that warm fuzzy feeling of connection when you hug a friend or family member you haven’t seen in a while.
It’s behind the sense of calm and contentment when you cuddle with your partner or loved one.
It’s responsible for the soothing, almost instant effect of a hug on a crying baby or child.
Oxytocin release in the brain and body is also the source of the sense of ‘Mama bear’ defensiveness to protect our loved ones, or even simply our ‘tribe’ – oxytocin release spreads within a group to unite us all, whether that’s our workgroup, our family or our sports team.
It looks as though women respond more strongly to oxytocin, which makes sense given its multiple roles in the female body, but that doesn’t mean men are exempt – it still seems to enhance the sense of social connection in men, and that primal defensiveness is stronger there too.
Higher levels of oxytocin are associated with higher levels of trust and altruism, as well as – remarkably – a stronger immune system and better recovery from wounds and illness. Exactly what we could all do with just now.
Given that oxytocin seems to be so very vital for our mental, emotional and physical well being, how can we all go about getting more of it, at a time when we aren’t able to enjoy the physical proximity we crave?
We know that the best way to ignite a supply of oxytocin in the brain is a prolonged hug, of 20 seconds or more, so indulge yourself in cuddling up to those you can as much as they will allow! But helpfully for those living alone, time spent connecting to our furry friends’ works, too – petting and stroking cats or dogs, or other pets will trigger oxytocin release.
No pet? No problem – indulge yourself in watching a romantic movie – our brains are so hardwired to respond to the social connection that even watching someone else hug or cuddle lights up the ‘mirror neurons’ in our brain so that we get to feel the same emotions we see. That’s why chatting to people over FaceTime, Zoom or any of the video call platforms is more satisfying than a simple text or phone call.
This mirror mechanism and the behaviours involving oxytocin are how we are able to understand how others feel and are vital for our social behaviour, our very existence in a socially connected world.
So, this National Hug Day make the most of those hugs, whether they are in physical 3D, virtually or digitally, or even just a memory reignited by a film – oxytocin doesn’t distinguish.
Your health and well being will thank you for it, as will your hug’ees once you explain why you won’t let them go!
If you have enjoyed this science’y look at the reasons we love a hug, why not follow Claire on Facebook and check out some of her live video’s about how we can hack our brains and its neurotransmitters to get them to work better for us.
About the Author: Claire Noyelle practices online and from her tranquil garden therapy room at her home in Bearsted, Maidstone East, in the heart of the garden county of Kent. Claire is a member of the Association for Solution Focused Hypnotherapists, National Council for Hypnotherapy and the Complimentary and Natural Healthcare Council and a member of both the General Pharmaceutical Council and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
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