The science behind why hugs are good for us

Sound the party horn, today’s the day we can finally hug our loved ones again. 

Whether it’s giving our grandparents a long-awaited cuddle, embracing close friends or scooping up our nieces and nephews, cautious hugs (AKA not going overboard) are now allowed.

And, after more than 14 months of restrictions, to say we’ve missed social contact is an understatement. 

At last, we can bid farewell to those awkward elbow touches and air hugs and show our family and friends some love, physically, after an incredibly difficult year.

It’s worth pointing out that the government is still advising caution with social contact – especially with growing concerns over the Indian variant. So, it’s important to consider personal risks, too.

And remember that your loved one might not feel safe hugging, so make sure you ask before you go in for a cuddle.

But, ultimately, there’s a reason that hugs make us feel good. In fact, there are multiple reasons. 

We’ve asked experts to share the science behind why hugs benefit us – both physically and psychologically. This is what they had to say…

It’s in our nature

Lowri Dowthwaite, a senior lecturer in psychological interventions at the University of Central Lancashire, explains that it’s in our biological make-up to seek out social contact – which is why hugging is so important to us.

She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘We are social creatures by nature and are hardwired to seek out contact with others, as this has been key to our survival.

‘Our early ancestors relied on the support of their tribe for food, shelter and safety. Building relationships within the tribe was essential as being outcast was fatal. 

‘Physical contact allows us to bond closely with others. This attachment is vital from birth as, when we are born, we are dependent on a caregiver for food and safety. When we hug we tap into this primary attachment.

‘Touching each other allows us to share warmth through our body and experience biochemical changes that further connect us to each other.’

The ‘happy’ hormone

Lowri adds: ‘When we hug, we release a neurohormone called oxytocin – a powerful bonding hormone that makes us feel warm and fuzzy.

‘Research has also found that the release of oxytocin is linked to increased trust and empathy, and it can also help you to cope during stressful times by nudging you to seek out social support.

‘Further research also shows that the release of oxytocin reduces feeling of pain – so giving someone a hug when they are suffering can really help.’

Hugging, kissing, cuddling, and sexual intimacy can all trigger oxytocin production and it’s also produced during childbirth and breastfeeding.

This explains why we might feel more connected to others during these activities.

Not only that, but oxytocin is also released in mammals – which is why it feels good to hug our pets, too.

Lowri adds: ‘Hugging your dog can be beneficial for you and your pet.

‘This may explain why pets have been so popular during lockdown, as they have been there for us when friends and family were not around.’

Physically calms our nervous system

Psychotherapist Heather Garbutt, from The Counselling and Psychotherapy Centre, adds that we need to hug in order to soothe and connect with each other – and our whole nervous system calms down when we feel this love and attachment.

She says: ‘In times gone by, experiments showed that when baby monkeys were given the choice between food and a furry piece of cloth to be with in a cage, they would invariably choose the cloth.

‘It gave them a sense of presence which, in its turn, is the primary connection to staying alive. Food comes later in the hierarchy.’ 

Heather explains that when we meet another person, our nervous systems connect.

This means we often know if somebody is in a bad mood by their body language and by the reaction of tension in our own body.

She adds: ‘You will also know when there is warmth towards you without words being spoken.

‘When we hug the communication is even stronger. It gives us a feeling of home, security, welcome and calm. It lifts our mood and relaxes us deeply.’

It can alter our brain chemistry (for the better)

‘The beauty of the hug is that it takes advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity,’ says psychologist and mental health expert Dr Audrey Tang.

‘What this means is the chemical balance in our brain can be altered by sustained behaviours – these can be positive or negative. 

‘Even if we have been feeling down, and a focus on this has caused the brain to function in a certain way, changing our behaviour – through having more hugs – can result in more positive pathways being build, or the negative ones being dampened.’

We already know about the happy hormone oxytocin, but hugging also increases levels of feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin.

Niels Eék, a psychologist and co-founder of mental wellbeing app Remente, says: ‘These two neurotransmitters help to regulate your mood and can also help your body to relieve stress.

‘Dopamine, in particular, is known to regulate the pleasure centre in your brain, which means it is helpful in reducing anxiousness.’

So hugging can reduce stress and anxiety, too.

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