What happens when someone hugs us?
When someone hugs us, the physical contact activates the pressure receptors that we have in our skin, which are also known as Pacinian corpuscles, and respond mainly to deep pressure. These receptors immediately send signals to the vagus nerve.
At that point, we begin to feel good because that nerve is connected with nerve fibers that reach different cranial nerves and play an important role in the regulation of most of the key functions of the body, including blood pressure. Therefore, as a result of a hug and vagus nerve stimulation, the heart rate and blood pressure decrease. Actually, the vagus nerve plays an important role in the parasympathetic system, which represents a kind of handbrake when we are under stress or overexcited.
Another important change takes place directly in the brain. A hug stimulates the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter known as the “pleasure’s hormone” because it creates a feeling of satisfaction that relieves stress and tension. It is also appreciated that a simple hug increases the production of oxytocin, known as the “love’s hormone” which allows us to emotionally connect with others and trust them.
And the most important fact is that the effects of a hug are immediate. A study conducted at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International in Kyoto organized a conversation of about 15 minutes between some people and their partners. After, some of them received a hug and some not. Assessing the physiological parameters, the researchers appreciated that those who received the hug showed a significant reduction in the level of cortisol in blood, the stress hormone that causes so much damage.
Hugs help us feel good about ourselves
It was found that a hug, or a loving caress, affect the brain’s ability to imagine the body, even in adults. This kind of physical contact is also essential to develop and maintain an adequate perception of our body.
According to a study conducted at the University College London, the key lies in the fact that this type of body contact offers pleasant tactile sensations that generate a series of proprioceptive signals, that help us feel better about our bodies.
In practice, a touch or a hug, don’t send only the proprioceptive signals to our brain that allow us to be more aware of our bodies, but also say to it that we are worthy of being loved. And these feelings make us feel very good.
In fact, according to these researchers, the lack of hugs and caresses could be a triggering or aggravating factor of body image disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
How many hugs we need every day?
Actually we could live without hugs, but it would be like dying slowly, a little every day. About this, family therapist Virginia Satir said: “We need four hugs a day to survive, eight hugs to keep us as we are and 12 hugs to grow”.
In fact, during a study conducted by researchers at UCLA it were scanned the brains of participants while they were subjected to electric shocks. Their partners accompanied them during the test and, in some cases, were allowed to hold their hands. Thus it was found that physical contact was helping to deal with the stress of the experience and that in these cases were activated brain areas responsible for mitigating fear.
These studies show that hugs have a very powerful effect on our brains and help us achieve a state of relaxation and comfort, while allowing us to better deal with stress and fear. Therefore, even if not 8, you still need to guarantee you a daily dose of hugs.
Sumioka, H. et. Al. (2013) Huggable communication medium decreases cortisol levels. Nature; 3: 3024.
Crucianelli, L. et. Al. (2013) Bodily Pleasure Matters: Velocity of Touch Modulates Body Ownership During the Rubber Hand Illusion. Frontiers in Psychology; 4: 703.
Inagaki, T. K. & Eisenberger, N. I. (2012) Neural correlates of giving support to a loved one. Psychosom Med; 74(1): 3-7.
Holt-Lunstad, J. et. Al. (2008) Influence of a “warm touch” support enhancement intervention among married couples on ambulatory blood pressure, oxytocin, alpha amylase, and cortisol. Psychosom. Med; 70: 976–985.