The return of hugging and why it’s so vital to our wellbeing

    Illustration of lots of people having a hug
    Published: 20 May 2021. Written by: Marina Gask. 

    Hugs are back: here’s why they’re so vital to our wellbeing… We never knew how much hugs meant to us until they were off limits. Here’s why hugging is so important for our health and wellness.

    After a year of being advised to keep hugging to households or bubbles only, from this week, we are allowed to embrace friends and loved ones again. And it can’t come a day too soon. One recent survey found that people have been looking forward to hugs more than going to the pub or the hairdresser. According to The Touch Test, an online study created by a team of psychologists at Goldsmiths University of London, positive touch was linked with higher levels of well-being and lower levels of loneliness.

    The biological need for human touch is referred to as ‘skin hunger’ and is perhaps one of the aspects of the last year that, for many of us, has been toughest – especially for the elderly and those living alone. 

    Hugs being back on the menu will be particularly welcome news for anyone who lives alone and for the elderly. According to a study by Timmins and Gleeson, the need for touch increases with age as it is often the only sensuous experience open to older people. Living without hand-holding, an arm round the shoulder or a hug has been very difficult for many living in care homes.

    So, whether you tend to be reluctant when it comes to hugs, you’re still feeling some residual Covid-related fears around the thought of human touch, or you’re a big fan of the cuddle, here’s what you need to know about the humble hug.

    Why do we need hugs?

    Illustration of a little boy hugging his grandma

    Hugging is a big part of being human, says Sarah Taylor PhD, Wellbeing and Executive Coach Director at workplace wellbeing and mental health consultancy Beingworks. ‘We’re social creatures, hardwired neurologically to need these moments of connection. Hugging affects our self-esteem, our anxiety levels and our physical health, as it’s linked to the immune system.’ Hugging is instinctive for humans, which has made it all the harder for those who’ve been totally deprived of it. ‘It’s how we show we care,’ adds Dr Taylor.

    Hugging is also key to bonding. ‘When we hug, it slows our heart rate, activating the part of the brain that is linked to compassion, making us feel more connected to that person. And that has a carry-over effect as well, because the hormones stick around in the system, so we get the benefits long afterwards,’ explains Dr Taylor. 

    Not having this feeling of connection can significantly affect our health. Studies show that when people feel lonely they have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, raising the risk of cardiovascular disease.

    What happens to our bodies when we hug?

    Illustration of two friends hugging

    Scientists have found that hugging for a minimum of 20 seconds can have a powerful effect. ‘Quite instantly there’s a hormonal reaction sending the feel-good hormone of oxytocin through our bodies, while the orbitofrontal cortex (the area at the front of the brain that is linked to emotion and memory) gets activated. As these regions of the brain light up, it has the impact of triggering our reward centres, calming our stress levels and any feelings of anxiety.’ 

    Oxytocin (a feel-good hormone known as ‘the cuddle chemical’) relaxes us, lowers blood pressure and reduces levels of the stress hormone norepinephrine. Scientists believe interpersonal touch can modulate oxytocin and the endogenous opioid system (neurons in the brain that can produce soothing chemicals), both of which can boost health.

    Hugs can relieve stress and soothe us throughout the day — even if we face conflict afterwards. Researchers found those who were hugged were less affected by interpersonal conflict than those who weren’t, because touch deactivates the part of the brain that responds to threats. And in turn, fewer hormones are released to signal a stress response – meaning we stay calm even in stressful situations.

    What happens to us when we don’t hug?

    Person lying on bed with their cat

    Been feeling low? If your life has lacked hugs, no wonder. Says Dr Taylor: ‘Because we are social creatures who need human touch, lack of hugging makes us feel lonely and impacts on our self esteem, leaving us feeling anxious and sad.’

    A lack of hugs could also make us more vulnerable to illness, according to research from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. Examining how stress and social support impacts immunity and susceptibility to infectious disease, they found that those who felt socially supported and were hugged more often experienced less severe signs of illness.

    What if you aren’t ready to hug yet?

    Illustration of people talking about hugging

    We’ve been through a lot over the last year. Things that were normal to us became verboten and fears of contracting the virus may still run deep. So, if hugging feels like a step too far right now, that’s just fine. ‘Do what feels right for you. Allow yourself a readjustment period rather than putting yourself under pressure to instantly feel a certain way. If hugging makes you feel anxious, it will produce stress hormones instead of having a positive impact,’ explains Dr Taylor.

    If you feel a bit self-conscious about hugging or under social pressure to hug, don’t force it. There’s no harm in showing your vulnerability either. Having held our emotions in over this extended time period may make a hug an emotional moment. ‘A few tears may actually come as something of a relief, so don’t give yourself a hard time if hugging brings a sob to the surface,’ adds Dr Taylor.

    As we gradually return to normality, it’s hard to not notice how lockdown and the pandemic have affected different aspects of our lives. We asked 5 people how lockdown has impacted their relationships.

    Vitality offers mental health support with private health insurance. If you’re a Vitality health insurance member, log into Member Zone to access the mental health hub.