If you're suffering from depression, loneliness, or poor health, there's a remedy that doesn't require a visit to the doctor, a prescription, or a trip to the pharmacy. It's simple, fast-acting and anyone can access it. What is this wonder drug? It is, quite simply, a hug.
"Hugging therapy" has been proven to be extremely beneficial for healing illness, loneliness, depression, stress and anxiety, while fostering positive emotions that also reconnect you with the Divine.
American psychologists Karen Grewen and Karen Light have evidenced that when people hug, the brain releases a chemical called oxytocin, which soothes feelings of loneliness, isolation and anger. This hormone, as well as the feel-good hormone, serotonin, are released when we hold someone close, and our hearts are pressed against each other's bodies. Hugs are so nurturing they've actually been referred to as "a handshake of the heart."
According to Virginia Satir, who is widely considered to be the mother of family therapy, "We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth." Her theories have been validated by research which proves that our emotional health is profoundly affected by our experience of physically expressed love, and that touch -- particularly hugging -- is vital to the brain's development of fundamental positive emotions.
This concept is further emphasized by clinical psychologist Linda Blair of Bath University, who says, "Touch affects the cerebellar brain system, an area of the brain where basic positive emotions such as trust and affection probably come from."
In addition to the mind, the body is nourished by hugging. Research at the University of North Carolina determined that blood pressure and levels of cortisol, a detrimental stress hormone, were notably reduced -- especially in women -- when people hugged their partners for a minimum of 20 seconds. And a 10-second hug a day may thwart infections, charge your immune system, relieve depression and fight fatigue. Other studies indicate that there is a strong connection between an increase in hugs and a decrease in the risk of heart disease.
Hugs also benefit the body's immune system in other ways. The gentle pressure they exert on the sternum, and the resulting emotional elevation, activates the solar plexus chakra. In turn, this stimulates the thymus gland, which controls the body's production of white blood cells, keeping you healthy and free of diseases.
Hugging even sets off a series of positive reactions in the skin, itself. A report by "Mail Online" noted, "The skin contains a network of tiny, egg-shaped pressure centers called Pacinian corpuscles that can sense touch, and which are in contact with the brain through the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve winds its way through the body, and is connected to a number of organs, including the heart.
"It is also connected to oxytocin receptors. One theory is that stimulation of the vagus triggers an increase in oxytocin, which in turn leads to the cascade of health benefits."
Hugging can just plain feel good, and be a great mood elevator. As emphasized by neurologist Shekar Raman, MD in the "Huffington Post": "A hug, pat on the back, and even a friendly handshake are processed by the reward center in the central nervous system, which is why they can have a powerful impact on the human psyche, making us feel happiness and joy… And it doesn't matter if you're the toucher or touchee. The more you connect with others -- on even the smallest physical level -- the happier you'll be."
Hugging is just as beneficial for the person doing the hugging, as the person being hugged, illustrating that hugging is, indeed, reciprocal. It's a universal language that can convey specific emotions with amazing accuracy. One study was conducted determining that touch -- and only touch -- can disclose emotions such as anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude and sympathy, with accuracy rates as high as 83 percent.
For many decades, it's been known that babies' health and mental condition will deteriorate without hugging and physical affection. An example of this is a pair of twins prematurely born in 1995 who were being cared for in a hospital. One of the twins was healthy, and the other was not. Numerous medical approaches were attempted to improve her ailments, but they all failed.
Finally, a nurse named Gayle Kasparian put the infants together on a bed. They immediately cuddled up to each other. With arms around each other, the sickly baby's feeble health began to markedly improve. This reversal of her frail condition was due to the incredible healing power of a hug. Another study conducted in 2000 demonstrated that when babies were hugged while being given blood tests, they cried less and their heart rates were steadier. And children who aren't hugged may have delays in walking, talking and reading.
Often, there is very little that will provide comfort to young kids like the warm embrace of a hug, though many parents stop hugging their children when they reach puberty. Yet the need for hugs isn't reduced as we get older, despite the fact that research has proven hugging to be beneficial throughout our entire lives -- even to the point of being essential for both physical and emotional health. One study determined that one-third of people experience no hugs on a day-to-day basis, and a whopping 75 percent wanted more hugs.
Hugs can also be a vital component of self-esteem. From the time we enter this world, the embraces of our family demonstrate that we're loved and special. This merging of sensations of touch with feelings of self-worth stay with us as we reach adulthood -- they become imprinted at a cellular level and link us with our ability to love and value ourselves throughout our entire lives.
Research has also demonstrated that hugs can help soften someone with a harsh personality. Many abrasive people who were studied became gentler and more empathetic over the course of time, the more that they were hugged by friends and loved ones.
Deprived of hugs, we can become withdrawn, sad, depressed. Hugs provide much more than physical contact. They foster feelings of comfort, safety and tenderness. Hugs give us social contact and a general sense of wellbeing, along with helping us feel like we're significant and have a special place in the world. And when we connect so deeply with one another, we also forge a deeper connection with God.
Hugging doesn't necessarily have to be limited to humans, either. Proven, positive benefits have been linked to cuddling with a beloved pet. This type of contact can provide vital advantages to your heart, as well as your overall health condition.
However, discretion has to be used when it comes to hugging people. According to neurophysiologist Jurgen Sandkuhler, "The positive effect only occurs if the people trust each other, if the associated feelings are present mutually, and if the corresponding signals are sent out. If people do not know each other, or if the hug is not desired by both parties, its effects are lost."
Unwanted hugs from strangers, or even people we're acquainted with, can cause a spike in anxiety. "This can lead to pure stress, because our normal distance-keeping behavior is disregarded," Sandkuhler added. "In these situations, we secrete the stress hormone, cortisol. Hugging is good, but no matter how long or how often someone hugs, it is trust that's more important."
You may have heard of a worldwide free hugs campaign in which people give hugs to total strangers in public places. Sandkuhler said this movement would only have positive effects, "if everyone involved is clear that it is just a harmless bit of fun," or it could end up provoking stress and anxiety.
"Everyone is familiar with such feelings from our everyday lives," said Sandkuhler. "For example, if someone we don't know comes too close to us for no apparent reason. This violation of our normal distance-keeping behavior is then generally perceived as disconcerting, or even as threatening."
Otherwise -- have you gotten or given your share of hugs today?
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