Mind Matters — Hugs and Health

Who knew? That hugging and kissing is good for the brain! Good for health over all, in fact. The feel good feeling you get from a hug goes beyond the ephemeral moment.

Evidence from scientific research shows that, when stressed, we produce the biochemical cortisol, which can have a cumulative negative effect on our bodies and brains. On the other hand, the biochemical oxytocin gets produced when we hug and kiss, and this compound appears to be an antidote to cortisol’s effect.

It was known long before the recent research that oxytocin was produced in pregnant and nursing mothers. Part of what we love about babies, even when we’re not the Mom or Dad, are the warm feelings they engender when we hug them. Having visited my great nephews this weekend, I can attest to an oxytocin high—cuddling and cooing to baby and kissing the pre-schoolers. (Yes, there is the dirty diaper side of all this, but it’s my hunch that the loving glow of the oxytocin flow can help mitigate the downside.)

And we don’t stop yearning for touch just because we become adults. It appears that the slightest touch can go deeply. Just placing a hand on someone’s shoulder can turn on oxytocin production. Our skin, as the largest organ of the body, can quickly register care and connection.

While we can imagine all the ways we can reach out to each other, not only with kind words, but also with kind touch, we also can intuit that the reverse can be true as well. Unfortunately, a kiss or hug or touch can become an unwanted or intrusive act, or can be done with violence and cruelty, subverting its goodness.

Too many times, I have heard stories in my office where the touch from a parent was remembered in its horror, as physical or sexual abuse. Or perhaps the client recalls that, as a child, while there was not physical abuse, there also was no affection—no hugging, no kissing, no touch, and no loving looks and no kind words. When we grow up in such a cold and distant household, that too can be a form of neglect. As adults, we may come to understand intellectually that our parents were either ill, or depressed, or simply unable to provide that kind of connection. However, the child that we carry deep within ourselves still feels the lack of touch and affection. So, even as adults, we need to learn how to embrace ourselves (literally and figuratively) and allow ourselves to be embraced.

Now we see that science has taken touch to its cellular level. Rather than demean the importance of hugs and kisses done kindly and with good intentions, science has uplifted its necessity from the realm of those who might say it’s sentimental hogwash or “new-agey.” And when you’re lacking a hug from someone else, give yourself a hug—put your hand on your heart gently and breathe deeply for a moment or give yourself an embrace with both arms. These little movements do help to self-soothe. Then, better yet, turn to your partner and do more than dosey-do!