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The Healing Power of Touch (and Hugs)

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

In yoga class today, the teacher rubbed my feet and oh it felt so good ~ it got me thinking about touch and made me realize how long it has been since I’ve been touched. I know it may sound weird to talk about, but this is a topic that has been on my mind since things shut down for Covid in March 2020, more than a year ago now.

I think about the millions of people that live alone, the millions of people that never get touched. And the millions of people that missed out on in-person human interaction in 2020. Research shows that receiving a smile from someone increases serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters that is impacted by antidepressants. It's no wonder I am seeing so many depressed clients this past year! Isolation has a huge impact on people’s functioning. And touch is an important factor.

If you are someone with a relationship, you may not think about this. I know when I was in a relationship I didn’t; I took it for granted that I was hugged and kissed every day. I remember even shying away from hugs at times, wanting my space. But after a few years of being single, I realize how much I miss just a simple hug ~ no words ~ just a hug is all I crave. And one of the places I would get hugs was in yoga studios. I thought about this as I had someone in class ask today: “are you hugging?”

It’s so interesting to witness social interactions right now. People are not sure whether to hug, to get too close to others... Do I say hi? Do I smile? Will I be judged or rejected if I do? I even feel awkward talking about this because touch can be a taboo topic too (because so many people have experienced unwanted, unhealthy and abusive touch-a topic I will explore in a future blog) - but for now, back to healthy touch, a necessity for humans. There have been studies showing that children thrive with positive touch. And this continues into adulthood - studies show that touch calms cardiovascular stress, activates the vagus nerve, and can trigger a release of oxytocin (the "love" hormone).

So, my friends, have compassion for yourself, have compassion for others ~ and if you are craving touch, please know that you are not alone; that craving healthy touch is normal.

Some great ways to receive healthy touch are: getting a massage or a pedicure, or asking for a hug from a friend - but make sure it's at least a 20 second hug...keep reading for why..

The benefits of hugs ~ A healthy form of touch

Hugs invoke relaxation, can calm fear and anxiety, reduce anxiety and promote feelings of contentment. They increase oxytocin, the transmitter that acts on the limbic system, which is the brain’s emotional center. Oxytocin is released by the pituitary gland; it lowers heart rate and cortisol levels (cortisol is released when we are under stress). They also stimulate the thymus, which is the regulator of our white blood cell count, which keeps us healthy.

Hugs stimulate dopamine levels. When dopamine is released from the brain, good feelings arise and motivation is increased. Dopamine is known as the pleasure hormone and it is the area of the brain that is stimulated with drugs, such as cocaine.

Hugs increase serotonin aka the “happy” hormone. When serotonin is released into the body, it elevates the mood, and happiness occurs. (Many antidepressants work to increase serotonin.) Serotonin is also released when we witness acts of kindness, give acts of kindness, or receive acts of kindness.

Hugs also impact the parasympathetic nervous system. The skin has pressure centers called Pacinian Corpuscles, which sense touch and impact the vagus nerve.

Emotionally, hugs make us feel appreciated and increase our self-esteem. Babies that aren’t held do not thrive. When we are hugged, we feel valued and cared for. The average time a person hugs is 3 seconds ~ although it takes 20 seconds to get the therapeutic effect on the body and mind.

So with that said, if you are in need of a boost, find a way to increase the hugs in your life, thereby receiving more touch, for your mental, emotional and physical health! After all, our bodies crave touch, just like our hearts crave connection.

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