Hugs are more than a momentary feel-good moment. Benefits include emotional regulation, stress reduction, and safe bonding.
Touch has numerous therapeutic effects for many people. The human response to touch is biologically wired into the body, though some individuals may respond differently depending on their past experiences and environment.
The physical, emotional, mental, and social benefits associated with hugging aren’t fully established. Yet, scientists and therapeutic practitioners have come a long way in understanding how safe touch and hugs may help human beings feel safer, more connected, and healthier.
Physical touch is crucial for human beings at any age, and especially early in life, according to Kim Bielak, associate marriage and family therapist in California.
Harlow’s rhesus monkeys, the earliest and most well-recognized research on the subject of attachment, demonstrated that touch is a biologically-wired way for humans to securely attach. Without hugs, it’s difficult for children to connect with caregivers.
“Physical touch is vital to development and survival,” Bielak says. “Hugs and other forms of physical touch are a key mechanism by which we form bonds with family.”
John Bowly’s attachment style theory has suggested that how you bond with your early caregivers may affect all the other relationships you have in life.
“Hugs and other forms of physical touch are one of the most powerful ways we connect as humans,” says Bielak. “Just like any form of physical contact, a sense of safety, trust, and consent is always necessary.”
Regulating emotions can be challenging, especially for individuals who experienced trauma and other adverse events. Harlow’s research also indicates touch is key to developing the ability to self-soothe.
Hugs from a safe person, specifically, can assist you in recognizing and managing your emotions. The system is wired into us for life, Bielak said.
Benefits of hugging also include lowering blood pressure, according to David Tzall, PsyD, a licensed psychologist in Brooklyn, New York.
“They bring down cortisol levels in the body and can make us relax,” explains Tzall.
Social anxiety and major depressive disorder may make interacting with others more challenging. If touch helps you feel safe, relaxed, and connected to others, hugging may be beneficial for those who may feel isolated or socially withdrawn.
Hugs from loved ones may help people living with these disorders feel connected, socially supported, and less lonely, says Tzall.
Hugs create a moment of safe connection, which may reinforce feelings of love for a partner. Touch may be key for couples in relationship counseling, Tzall says.
“I speak with couples about touch, and if they’re hugging and cuddling,” Tzall explains. “It brings people closer and makes them feel safe.”
Other benefits of hugging for partners who may need to rekindle love include:
- boosting physical and emotional intimacy
- enhancing a sense of trust
- nurturing feelings of desire through the release of dopamine
What if you don’t like hugs?
You may not feel comfortable with touch or avoid hugs for many reasons like past traumatic experiences, including physical abuse. For some people, touch may activate memories or sensations related to earlier trauma.
Tzall regularly works with individuals who experienced abuse and trauma. Many haven’t received supportive, healthy physical touch. Some may feel that touch is scary or wrong, he says.
“People may also feel like they’re damaged,” Tzall adds. “If they’ve never been shown proper touch, they may not understand how to touch others.”
The support of an empathetic therapist may help you explore the root cause of your dislike of hugs and work with you in developing a safer experience related to touch.
“It’s not uncommon for some people to flinch at the thought of being touched,” Bielak explains. “Unwanted hugs can cross personal boundaries.”
Touch and consent should always go together.
“The longer the hug, the more connected a person feels,” Tzalll says. “It doesn’t need to go on for minutes and minutes— short embraces can be enough.”
In general, different hugs may offer specific benefits.
- Long hugs are excellent for reducing stress and lowering blood pressure.
- Body embraces may be useful for families and intimate partnerships.
- A hand over the shoulder can indicate an individual has done a good job.
Research supports the benefits of hugging and safe human touch.
“Hugs are wonderful for your health,” Tzall says. In moments of distress, hugs may be able to increase feelings of safety, security, and connection.
However, not everyone likes to be hugged, so consent is important.
“Instead of simply stating you’re a ‘hugger’ to a stranger, ask if a hug is OK first,” Bielak says.
Consent is key to ensuring a hug is beneficial for everyone involved in the embrace.