The incredible biological benefits of hugging – from reduced stress to better relationships

If you are a hugger you already know that a comforting hug feels great, but now a big hug is back on the agenda, will you remember to get back into the habit of hugging, asks mindset coach Kay Woodburn

Hugging is a natural source to smooth ourselves and others (Graphic: Mark Hall / JPI)

There are biological reasons to get behind the tribe of huggers which makes it well worth remembering to lean in for a 20-second embrace.

Oxytocin, often referred to as the ‘cuddle hormone’, is released during a hug. This is a naturally occurring hormone in your body which has an incredibly powerful impact. Oxytocin plays an important role in social bonding and is also a key reason why the simple act of hugging is such an incredible way to not only bond with others but also boost your own physical, and emotional, health.

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How does it work?

Kay Woodburn is an award-winning mindset coach and Managing Director of Gritty People

The autonomic nervous system is the network that supplies many of your vital organs and is responsible for regulating the body’s unconscious actions. These are the things we do without having to think, like sending blood around the body. Let’s explore a couple of important parts of that system:

Parasympathetic nervous system - There to help you ‘rest and digest’, when you are in a parasympathetic state you are nice and calm, and your nervous system is relaxed.

Sympathetic nervous system - When you are in a sympathetic state you are in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Stimulating activities will take you into this high alert state.

When we are in a sympathetic state we produce a stress hormone called ‘cortisol’, which is produced by our adrenal grands and released when we are under physical or mental stress. Whilst it primes your body for action and can be helpful in rare situations, it can also be very unhelpful. Especially if we expose our nervous system to this elevated state for prolonged periods of time.

How can hugs help?

They relieve life’s stressors

They stimulate the vagus nerve. This nerve gets its name from Latin origin for ‘wanderer’, which is exactly what it does. It’s the longest nerve in your body and it wanders from the head down through the back of the neck all the way into your arms and gut.

It plays a critical role in sending signals, mostly visceral, back and forth in a constant two-way communication from the body to the brain and back again. As well as being connected to a number of organs, it’s also connected to your oxytocin receptors.

So, stimulation of the vagus nerve through a warm embrace, ideally for 20 seconds, triggers an increase in oxytocin, which in turn leads to a multitude of health benefits

Hugs are one of the most succinct ways to encourage your body to release oxytocin, and the more oxytocin your pituitary gland releases, the better able you are to handle life's stressors.

This means your nervous system can have a better parasympathetic balance.

They make us feel happier

Hugging also increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter known as the "feel good" hormone that is produced and spread by neurons in the brain. Serotonin helps us feel happy, calm, and confident.

When serotonin flows freely, we feel good about ourselves — and the opposite is true when this hormone is absent. Low levels can cause sleep disorders and lead to obesity.

Better connected relationships

We naturally feel a pull to hug those we know are in pain. A hug sends a nonverbal message that we understand each other.

When you receive a hug from someone you care about, it can bring you comfort, make you feel safe, change the way you feel in an instant.

Hugs are a form of meditation. They allow us to be present in the moment, to let go and flow with the energy of the embrace. It's easy to forget how meaningful a hug can be, but it can truly deepen your connection with another person. Hugs convey, in a nonverbal way, an understanding of each other.

Mother nature gave us this natural source to smooth ourselves and others, so if you feel safe to do so in this uncertain age, go find someone you love and give them a hug.

Kay Woodburn is an award-winning, high-challenge neuro-linguistic programming mindset coach. She works with competitive athletes, leaders and entrepreneurs to master their mindset, grittypeople.co.uk

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