When we hug and embrace those that we love, a special kind of magic is released and exchanged. It is a powerful and intimate moment that feels us with warmth, hope, and a profound sense of belonging. For that moment in time we lose ourselves, our cares, our worries, and the past and the future all blend into a perfect moment when we focus solely on the present. But what exactly is happening in our bodies and our brains when we embrace in such a manner? According to a new study from Carnegie Mellon University, that fuzzy feeling turns out to be a trigger that can help protect and strengthen our immune system while blocking stress from our daily lives.
The experiment, led by psychologist Sheldon Cohen, took over 400 healthy adults who had to fill out a questionnaire about their perceived social supports. They were also engaged in a nightly telephone interview for two weeks to assess the frequency of interpersonal conflicts and how many times they were hugged. Afterwards, the participants were deliberately exposed to a common cold virus where they were then quarantined to monitor any signs of illness or infection. The results found that having, or even perceiving, social supports reduces the risk of infection when confronted with conflicts. One-third of the protective effects of social support was responsible solely from hugs. The greater number of hugs and the greater perceived social support from infected participants garnered less severe symptoms of the flu whether they had conflicts throughout the day or not.
“This suggests that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress,” Cohen said. “The apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy. Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection.” It turns out that the warm and fuzzy feeling is actually a chemical being released called oxytocin, which also referred to as “the cuddle hormone.” This chemical has been linked to our social bonding process. “Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, which basically promotes feelings of devotion, trust and bonding,” says DePauw University Psychologist Matt Hertenstein. “It really lays the biological foundation and structure for connecting to other people.”
Being hugged can also effect your physical health. The sensation of our skin being touched turns on pressure receptors called Pacinian Corpuscles. These receptors send signals to an area of the brain called the vagus nerve, which in turn lowers your blood pressure.
Hugging your babies and children when they’re at a young age can also help them to be less stressed out later on when they reach adulthood. The power of a hug is manifold in its overall benefits to our health. Find someone special to hug today; you both will profit from so simple a gesture.