For many people, what they have missed most during the pandemic is being able to embrace loved ones. In fact, it wasn’t until we lost our ability to embrace friends and family that many of us realized the importance of touch for many aspects of our health: including our mental health.
But now that vaccination programs are being implemented and restrictions are starting to dwindle in much of the UK, many people will be willing to embrace each other again. And the good news is that hugs not only feel good, but also have many health benefits.
The reason hugs feel so good has to do with our sense of touch. It is an extremely important sense that allows us not only to physically explore the world around us, but also to communicate with others by creating and maintaining social ties.
Touch consists of two different systems. The first is “quick touch,” a nervous system that allows us to quickly detect contact (e.g., if a fly landed on its nose or touched something hot). The second system is “slow touch.” This is a population of newly discovered nerves, called c-tactile afferents, which process the emotional meaning of touch.
These c-tactile afferents have evolved essentially to be “hug nerves” and are usually activated by a very specific type of stimulation: a gentle touch at skin temperature, the typical type of a hug or caress. We see c-tactile afferents as the neural input stage to point out the rewarding and rewarding aspects of social tactile interactions such as the hug and touch.
Touch is the first sense to start working in the womb (about 14 weeks). From the moment we are born, a mother’s gentle caress has multiple health benefits, such as decreased heart rate and promote the growth of brain cell connections.
When someone hugs us, the stimulation of c-tactile afferents in the skin sends signals, through the spinal cord, to the brain’s emotion processing networks. This induces a cascade of neurochemical signals, which have been shown to have health benefits. Some of the neurochemicals include the hormone oxytocin, which plays an important role in social bonding, slows heart rate and reduces levels of stress and anxiety. The release of endorphins in the reward pathways of the brain supports immediate feelings of pleasure and well-being derived from a hug or caress.
The hug has a calming and relaxing effect that also benefits our health in other ways.
Improve our sleep: Of the benefits of co-sleeping with babies in hugging your partnerSoft touch is known to regulate our sleep as it lowers the levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a key regulator of our sleep-wake cycle, but it also increases when we are stressed. It is therefore not surprising that high levels of stress can delay sleep and cause fragmentation. sleep patterns or insomnia.
Reduces stress reactivity: Beyond the immediate calming and pleasant feelings that a hug provides, the social touch also has long-term benefits for our health, which makes us less reactive to stress and building resilience.
Nutritional touch, during the early periods of development, produces higher levels of oxytocin receptors and lower levels of cortisol in brain regions that are vital for regulation of emotions. Babies who receive high levels of favorable contact grow up being less reactive to stressors and show up lower levels of anxiety.
Increases well-being and pleasure: Throughout our lives, social touch unites us and helps us maintain our relationships. As noted, this is because it releases endorphins, which makes us see hugs and touch as rewarding. Touch provides the “glue” that holds us together, which underpins our physical and emotional well-being.
And when touch is desired, the two people share the benefits of the exchange. In fact, even petting your pet can have health and wellness benefits, as oxytocin levels increase so much in the pet and owner.
It could help us fight infections: By regulating our hormones (including oxytocin and cortisol), touching and hugging can also affect our body’s immune response. While high levels of stress and anxiety can suppress our ability to do so fight infections, close, supportive relationships benefit health and well-being.
Research even suggests he could be petted in bed protect us from the cold. By tracking the frequency of hugs among just over 400 adults who were then exposed to a common cold virus, the researchers found that “hugs” gained hands because they were less likely to catch a cold. And even if they did, they had less severe symptoms.
While it’s important that we continue to protect ourselves, it’s so important that we don’t give up hugs forever. Social isolation and loneliness are known increase our chances of premature death – and perhaps future research should investigate whether it is the lack of hugs or the social touch that may be driving this. Touch is an instinct that is beneficial to us mental and physical health – therefore, we should celebrate his return.
Of course, not everyone longs for a hug. Therefore, for those who do not, there is no reason to worry about losing the benefits of hugs, as it has also been shown regulate emotional processes and reduce stress.