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Can I Get a Hug?

We’ve all heard the phrase “hug it out”. Well, turns out that hugging it out has multiple health benefits which are backed by scientific research. Let’s start with why hugs feel so good to us. Hugs are a form of touching during which we physically explore the world around us as well as connect emotionally and socially with another person. “Touch is the first sense to start working in the womb (around 14 weeks). From the moment we’re born, the gentle caress of a mother has multiple health benefits, such as lowering heart rate and promoting the growth of brain cell connections.” Babies who are cuddled with lots of touch grow into adults who have healthy attachments with other people. Babies who are deprived of physical touch grow into adults who have unhealthy attachments or lack attachment altogether with other people. “Nurturing touch, during early developmental periods, produces higher levels of oxytocin receptors and lower levels of cortisol in brain regions that are vital for regulating emotions. Infants that receive high levels of nurturing contact grow up to be less reactive to stressors and show lower levels of anxiety.” According to researchers out of Berkley, touch consists of two distinct systems. The first is “fast-touch”: This is a population of nerves which allow us to quickly detect contact by or with someone or something (for example - touching something hot). The second system is “slow-touch”: This is a population of nerves, called c-tactile afferents, that process the emotional meaning of touch.” The c-tactile afferents are what we call “cuddle nerves” and are activated by a temperature touch. Biologically positive touch works like this: When someone hugs us, the (c-tactile afferents) nerve receptors in ourskin that generally respond to non-painful stimulation such as light touch are activated and send messages up our spinal cord, to our brain’s emotion processing networks. This produces oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) which releases endorphins (the body’s natural pain killers) which raises our dopamine levels (our body’s reward system) and make us see hugs and touch as rewarding and pleasurable. Even petting a pet can have benefits for us and our furry friend(s). You read that right, caressing/hugging our pets has the same effect on them as it does on us. ✅Positive physical touch, in this case a hug, naturally slows down our heart rate which automatically produces a calming effect on our bodies; it lowers our anxiety and stress levels; it regulates our sleep and reduces reactivity to stress by building resilience to stress. Through regulation of our hormones—including oxytocin and cortisol—touching and hugging can also affect our body’s immune response. Whereas high levels of stress and anxiety can suppress our ability to fight infections, close, supportive relationships benefit health and well-being. “Research even suggests that cuddling in bed could protect us against the common cold. By monitoring hugging frequency among just over 400 adults who were then exposed to a common cold virus, researchers found the “huggers” won hands-down in being less likely to get a cold. And even if they did, they had less severe symptoms.” Sheldon Cohen , Denise Janicki-Deverts , Ronald B Turner , ✅The release of oxytocin normally occurring in response to closeness in good relationships can to a certain extent be mimicked by massage and stroking of the skin. Indeed, treatment with massage is linked to oxytocin release. If repeated blood samples are collected in the beginning of a massage session, pulses of oxytocin can be observed both in the individual receiving massage and in the masseur (Uvnäs-Moberg, 2004). The massage treatment is accompanied by several positive effects. During a massage session levels of anxiety are decreased, the perception of wellbeing is increased and that of pain decreased. Moreover, both blood pressure and cortisol levels are lowered. Repeated massage treatments are associated with long-term expression of all these effects (Field, 2002, 2014). Massage also increases the ability for friendly interaction, and may even be used to resolve marital conflicts (Ditzen et al., 2007). Infant massage has been shown to decrease maternal depression, to ameliorate bonding between mothers and infants and also to relieve stress reactions and colic in the infants (O’Higgins et al., 2008; Field et al., 2009). Oxytocin, released into the brain in response to the massage, should be an important mediator of the above, mentioned effects. ✅Research also indicates that hugging a tree has the same effect of releasing oxytocin. So the next time you’re out on a walk, take a few minutes to hug a tree. Put your arms around a tree and feel the warmth. Turns out that the benefits of hugging a tree are backed by science! In summary, social isolation and a lack of social support can lead to pre-mature death. People actually die from loneliness – even perceived loneliness. Our minds automatically connect hugs/physical touch with a feeling of support, so a simple hug can have hours of positive effects on us. So, as the saying goes...let’s hug it out, people! Let’s do a group hug! Take care,

Norma McCarthy, LPC

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