Hugging, while it’s usually regarded as a simple and everyday act, has been found by scientists to radically alter one’s outlook for the better and affect the way our brains work in the long term.
According to a study from PLOS One, after social and/or relationship conflict, giving and receiving hugs with the other person will increase good feelings and decrease bad ones. This was true for all demographics surveyed.
Touch calms your nervous system
Physical touch has been found, in numerous studies, to cause positive physiological changes like reducing stress-related heart and brain activity and releasing the feel-good hormone oxytocin.
Hugging doesn’t just help you reunite after conflict: it can also affect your nervous system in a formative way. A 2012 study found that people who grew up with frequent hugging were more likely to be huggers as adults.
Unfortunately, not being hugged often as children can lead to unwelcome effects. One of those effects is an underdeveloped vagus nerve, which is connected to the spinal cord, and this can lead to a stunted ability to be compassionate or intimate. The oxytocin-producing system can also suffer, impairing the ability to pick up on the social cues of others. Obviously, the more hugs kids get, the better!
But if you decide to put this great strategy to use in your relationships, remember that not everyone likes to be hugged so you should always ask for consent first. Often these preferences come from someone’s upbringing and/or culture, so don’t be offended if they turn you down.
Science says you should embrace hugging on a regular basis
So how can we put the results of these studies to good use? Start incorporating hugging into your day-to-day life and see your relationships blossom.
Psychologist Stan Tatkin has created what he calls the “Welcome Home” exercise for couples who need an extra dose of cuddles. Basically, it’s a hugging ritual when you reunite after time apart that’s meant to improve your relationship over time.
Here are the instructions he gives:
- Let your partner know you’re home. Usually, partners don’t arrive home at the exact same time, right? Whoever is arriving at the house begins the exercise by announcing verbally to the other partner, who is already home, that they are now there.
- Seek each other out. The already-home partner drops whatever they’re doing as quickly as possible (no matter what that activity is) and goes to greet the arriving partner at the door.
- Embrace. Instead of kissing, the partners hug each other. This leads to positive feelings of closeness because, to our instincts, it feels like the way our parents held us as babies. That kind of intimacy is unique to our formative years, but as adults we can make attempts to mimic it with our loved ones for a heightened sense of warmth.
- Hold until you relax. Neither partner lets go until the other partner has relaxed completely into their arms. Distractions, including kids, should not be permitted to interrupt this bonding practice.
Doing this exercise long-term will improve your relationship with your partner as well as decrease your stress levels.
Hugs are obviously not the only way to help your partner feel better, but you may want to incorporate more of them when you comfort others.
Common sense tells us that social support can be a powerful force in times of stress. However, other studies tell us that unhelpful types of support, like unsolicited advice, can actually make a stressful situation worse by creating feelings of being judged. Therefore, unless your partner specifically requests otherwise, science says it’s best to stick to physical touch and doing favours when trying to help your partner after a bad day.
In all your romantic, friendly, and familial relationships, hugs can drastically improve both your rapport and your own moods. While you should only hug those who want to be hugged, instating it as a common practice with those you love can have great and lifelong effects, especially if it’s a habit begun early on in a child’s development. Regular hugs can change your life!
Do you need relationship help?
If you need help with your relationship, contact Clinton Power + Associates on (02) 8968 9323 to discuss your situation and find out how we can help.
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.