Once, while walking with my sisters on the boardwalk at a beach, we noticed a guy coming toward us wearing a t-shirt that read, “FREE HUGS”. He seemed like a normal enough guy, and because there is safety in numbers, we took him up on it and each took a turn hugging a stranger.
Was it kind of weird? Yes. But was it also kind of sweet? Yes.
Hugging strangers may or may not be your thing, but hugging and being hugged by someone you care about might be more important than you think.
Hugging has been referred to as the “universal medicine” because hugs can feel so good. Hugs make us feel loved, comforted and safe. There are many positive emotional benefits, but there are physical benefits as well. Chemicals are released that signal us to relax. But as it turns out, there are even more benefits when we make that hug a super long hug.
Touch deactivates the part of our brain that responds to threats. In our busy modern society, we hear a lot about anxiety and our fight-or-flight response that triggers the release of stress hormones, which in turn can raise our blood pressure and heart rate. This is our body’s natural response to protect us from danger and help us understand potential threats. We are all very familiar with the effects of stress in our lives.
Oxytocin is the counterbalance to the feelings of threat and danger. During a hug, we release a hormone and neurotransmitter called oxytocin that makes us feel good and relaxed and lowers anxiety. Oxytocin has several nicknames, including the “cuddle hormone,” “hug hormone,” and “love hormone.”
Oxytocin plays a role in calming so that social bonding can take place and affects our commitment to not fleeing. It signals that we are safe with people. I’m going to name it the “stay and snuggle” response, or the “anti-fight-or-flight!”
So, if we are hardwired to detect a threat and protect ourselves from danger, we are also hardwired to seek out touch and the calming physical reaction that comes from the security of being loved.
The idea of the 20-second hug is based on an experiment conducted in which couples were monitored before and after “warm contact” with their partner. The couples were given some time to talk about a time that was meaningful to them, watched a romantic video, talked a few minutes more, then ended with a 20-second hug.
The couples were then monitored again after a phase in which they were asked to prepare a speech about a situation that made them angry or stressed out. The women who had reported hugging as a normal part of their relationship showed higher oxytocin levels even throughout the angry phase of the experiment, suggesting that the effects of regular physical contact are more far-reaching than had been supposed.
It turns out people who hug and get hugs are less affected by conflict and stress and, in turn, may even enjoy better cardiovascular health. We have an inherent need for healthy touch, and not just in romantic relationships. Friendly hugs make us feel accepted and supported, and our bodies respond by producing chemicals that are good for our long term health.
The health benefits go beyond lower blood pressure and heart rates. Oxytocin can also affect how you feel and respond to pain. Feeling safe and cared for can make us less sensitive to physical pain and less anxious about anticipated pain.
Hugs may boost your immune system by helping you feel more relaxed and calm overall. Stress and anxiety trigger the release of adrenaline, which reduces our immune system’s ability to fight off infection. In addition to that, many people cope with stress in their life by picking up unhealthy habits like drinking and smoking. Stress and anxiety can also lead to poor sleeping.
Clearly, we would all be better off with at least one 20-second hug each day. Twenty seconds doesn’t seem like a particularly long period of our day–we get three of those every single minute. So, just what do 20 seconds feel like?
Each year on my birthday, I am fortunate enough that somebody sings “Happy Birthday” to me. I love it–who doesn’t love being celebrated? But sometimes, especially if the group of singers is made up of a large group, or people I don’t know that well, it seems like a pretty long song.
There have been times in my life when the birthday song seemed like an eternity, and I might as well have been standing there naked. Where do I look? Do I smile and look at each person in the face? Do I look at my cake? Does it always take this long to sing? I don’t know, it’s awkward.
The birthday song is easily a full minute, right? That’s why it can feel so awkward with all eyes focused on you for so long. I just started the stopwatch on my cell phone and sang “Happy Birthday” to myself, adding some style with a few prolonged notes and a nice little ritard for the last phrase, and it was under 20 seconds. What?
So, imagine hugging someone intently for a little bit longer than the time it takes them to leisurely sing “happy birthday to you” in its entirety softly in your ear. That’s kind of a long time.
Since I have been thinking about this blog, I have noticed that heartfelt hugs with my favorite people last about three seconds. Hugs given in a hurry or as a quick hello or goodbye last approximately one second.
I’m sure, like me, you have had the experience of hugging a friend or family member and were ready to release at the “appropriate” time, but the other person did not pull away. Your focus turns from the warmth of the hug to thoughts about wondering when the hug will be over. As humans, we kind of have an unspoken mutual agreement to hold an embrace until one of us feels the slightest release and, when someone violates that agreement, it really grabs your attention. A hug like that can make your day, or leave you feeling uncomfortable.
Realistically speaking, it’s not practical to go around giving out 20-second hugs. I wouldn’t recommend giving the world’s longest hug without agreeing ahead of time–it should definitely be consensual. I would say that, in general, a 20-second hug is more akin to snuggling. But when you knowingly go in for a long hug and give up the idea of figuring out when to let go, oxytocin is released, and a warm joy floods your very being.
I was talking about this concept at a recent family gathering, and my niece related her personal experience with a 20-second hug. She gave me permission to share her story.
Alta had been single for several years after a marriage of 20 years. She was glad to no longer be a part of an unhealthy relationship, but was feeling a bit lonely and missing a positive, warm touch in her life. She had a close friend who had just read about the benefits of the 20-second hug and asked Alta if she wouldn’t mind giving it a try.
Alta said that it did seem strange at first, but about 10 seconds in, she was surprised to find herself crying. It was a moving and memorable experience for her, and fulfilled a real physical and emotional need.
There is actually a term for people who, like Alta, are feeling deprived of touch: “skin hunger” or “touch starvation.” The United States fell at the bottom of the list of countries in a study about customs and human touch. Our modern society and methods of communication may leave some feeling disconnected from others. In addition, many hold back because of current events that have left us with fears of touch being viewed as inappropriate.
Loving and friendly touch is really personal, so it should always be consensual. It probably goes without saying that unwanted touch can be much more damaging than any of the benefits of hugging.
We all have one of those friends or family members who is a hugger. And the huggers of this world seem to assume that the non-huggers of this world are equally interested in hugging. So what if you aren’t a hugger?
I came from a very huggy family. My dad regularly expressed his love with long, life-threatening squeezes, and it felt so good to feel his love that I almost didn’t care about breathing. But I married into a family of not-so-huggy people. When I do hug my inlaws, it is always stiff and unnatural and comes with a predictable three pats on the back, which is their unconscious way of signaling that they have gotten that out of the way.
It was disappointing to me to reunite with my new family members after a long absence and to not be received with a hug. I thought that meant they did not approve of me or have an interest in me, and I felt unloved. After many years, I have finally accepted that my way is not the only way and, although I have difficulty feeling a connection to people I am close to but don’t hug, I try to not take it personally that they don’t like hugging.
So what if, like my in-laws, you just don’t like hugs? Are you doomed to have health problems or die an early, lonely, hug-less death? I don’t think the outlook is so bleak, but science seems to support hugging.
In one study conducted in a Swedish nursing home, it was found that residents who received hugs and warm touch thrived more than the less social residents. The results had such an impact on the man who conducted the research that he resolved to start hugging more.
If you aren’t used to hugging, it might take a little getting used to, but it’s never too late to start.
You might be pleasantly surprised at what can happen.
Whether you hug for 20 seconds or two seconds, there is value in connecting physically through hugging and warm touch, especially in close relationships.
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Scot, one of our enthusiastic fans, reached out after discovering that Lume made a difference for him and told Lume's creator, Dr. Shannon Klingman, “I have a lot more confidence when I hug people”.
Using Lume and eliminating worries about body odor can lead to better human connection, more intimacy, more spontaneity, and more joy.
As the poet, Mary Oliver asked,
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Connect with someone you love today! Let them know how much they mean to you, and by all means, hug it out for the number of seconds that feel right for you.
Did you Lume today?