The following is a guest post by writer, Beth Richards.
February has arrived and the ground hogs have spoken. Another six weeks of winter, brrrrrr! Oh well, guess we’ll just throw another log on the fire, cuddle up with blankets and warm drinks, and make the best of it right?
But there’s more than one kind of cold. The coldness we feel if we’re lonely or isolated is far more damaging than minus zero weather. And one of the best antidotes to that kind of coldness is human touch. From the time we’re newborn to the time we die, humans need touch. According to neurobiologists, not being touched enough can be very stressful to body and mind.
My son told me that a boy on the school bus referred to our house as “the tree hugger’s home”. That would be me. I have no problem with hugging trees. In fact, I’m worse (or should I say, I’m better than a tree hugger?) I hug my friends, my son, my pets, my relatives, and with just a bit too much wine I’ve been known to hug total strangers!
In her book, “The How of Happiness”, author Sonja Lyubomirsky writes about a study with two groups involving hugs. One group didn’t hug. The other group hugged at least five times a day for a month. The hugs were front-to-front, non sexual, both arms of both participants involved, with the aim of group members hugging as many people as possible. In other words, you didn’t get to hug just the people you liked (or thought to yourself, hey, kinda cute!) You had to hug everybody no matter what. The study concluded that the group that hugged was happier than the group that didn’t.
I should add that there are people who don’t like to be touched and find that being touched is actually more stressful. I have friends who feel this way. Often women, these are individuals who have experienced some kind of trauma in the past related to physical boundaries and safety. However even people with issues around touch can benefit from positive, non threatening physical contact once they have broken through those barriers and learned to trust even one person.
For nearly everyone, hugging releases loads of the happy chemicals: oxytocin and serotonin. These hormones also help alleviate over production of another hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is our ‘fight or flight’ hormone and the body’s response to stress, both external and internal. Today with all the stresses in our lives (caused by our eating habits, lifestyles, jobs, relationships, financial woes, and so on) we produce more cortisol than is healthy. It’s a hormone that, in excess, causes lots of problems and may even shorten our lives. It’s also linked to obesity. If you’re producing too much cortisol, it’s nearly impossible to lose weight. Sound familiar?
Even thinking about hugging someone you love can release a tsunami wave of oxytocin. Doctors studying the effects of touch recommend 5 to 8 hugs a day. The most hormones are released when hugs last a minimum of six seconds. Brief, wimpy hugs aren’t as beneficial but they’re better than nothing. In fact, studies show that even slight touching increases a person’s sense of well-being even when the touch is so subtle they are not consciously aware of it. Not only that, just the intent of healing touch actually heals. Nurses at New York University have endorsed therapeutic touch, for instance, which involves holding your hands over the person’s body without touching, after finding that it raised hemoglobin levels in the blood which then delivered increased blood to tissues.
Hugging and touch are essential from the moment we enter the world. Christine and her husband touched and held their infant Little One day and night when she was in the hospital. Touching premature babies is a critical element of their care and likely contributed hugely to the fact that Little One is such a thriving, healthy little girl today. In Romania, according to Harvard neurobiologist Mary Carlson, babies who were orphaned and not touched at all (or barely touched) suffered behavioural, mental, and physical defects which are largely attributed to the lack of touch in their infancy.
The need for hugs and touch is just as much present at the end of our lives. Perhaps the most heart breaking absence of hugs takes place in long term care facilities and nursing homes. Nursing and care staff are often too rushed and don’t have time for a six second, full on hug. In addition, some people feel queasy about touching elderly people. It’s as if, in one old person’s words, “they’re afraid my old age will rub off on them!” Yet study after study shows that touching is essential for the elderly on all levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual. It’s also a pain killer. The release of oxytocin directly impacts nerve endings and has been proven to reduce pain.
To conclude, hugs are one of the most important and healing actions we can do for each other. We’ve got six more weeks of frigid weather so let’s get that hugging action happening, folks! Note: hugging your pet also counts (hear that, Rosie?)…not to mention trees!