I’m a Hugger: Hugs Are Incredible For Your Health

Growing up, I had terrible test anxiety. If I’m honest, I still get it. I got a form of it the night before I returned to work after maternity leave. My worst bouts of it were in grad school before exams and practicals. The evening before any event where I’ll be tested in some way, I always react in the same way: I can’t sleep. My heart rate skyrockets and my heart pounds so hard I can feel it all over my body. I toss and turn and think about everything that could go wrong. At some point during the night, I get up and clean, because it’s better than lying in bed not sleeping and I get something done. Eventually (maybe around 2-3 am) I exhaust myself enough to fall asleep. 

Like I said, I had this growing up, too. And here I am, admitting to the entire world and internet that even into high school I needed one of my parents to tuck me in and/or lie down beside me for me to be able to sleep on those nights before big exams (AP Calculus, I’m looking at you). 

Then, in the middle of grad school, I learned about something that has changed my life: hugs. 

Obviously I knew about hugs before I was 24 and in the middle of physical therapy school. Real talk: my family is a whole bunch of huggers. But I learned about the magic of hugs, or in scientific terms, deep pressure stimulation, in my child development/pediatrics class. 

We all learned about our senses at some point: hearing (auditory), seeing (vision), smelling (olfactory), tasting (gustatory), touch (tactile). We have a couple more: the sense of where your body is in space/how it’s moving (proprioception) and equilibrium (vestibular). We use all of these together to make sense of our surroundings; our nervous system does this via sensory integration. Because of sensory integration you can take in all these different inputs and use them to correctly understand your environment, and then respond appropriately to touching standing on a rocking boat (staying upright, not getting sick), paying attention to a conversation even in the midst of a loud bar, and, yes, even paying the correct amount of attention to exams. 

When someone has trouble integrating sensations, they might respond with “sensory overload,” increased anxiety, and overall poor regulation of different body responses, such as increased heart rate, sweating, and poor sleeping patterns. Sound like what I described above? Yep, it sure does. It’s also what happens in individuals with a variety of diagnoses, including autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, and even dementia. 

Temple Grandin, an individual with autism who invented a HUGGING MACHINE for livestock to calm anxiety before being slaughtered; she applied the same idea and created a similar machine for individuals with autism.

The idea behind deep pressure is to increase the activity of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (some call this the “rest and digest” response) and decrease activity of the Sympathetic Nervous System (which produces the fight or flight response detailed above). This change in these opposing systems also causes a release of oxytocin, serotonin & dopamine (all the “happy” chemicals),  decreases the cortisol (stress hormone) produced, and decreases heart rate and blood pressure. In layman’s terms, hugs cause your body to produce more of the chemicals that make you happy… so this decreases anxiety, depression, and helps stabilize heart rate and blood pressure.

That’s not all, folks! 

Hugging can impact the way we cope with stress. Specifically, the more hug-type contact we have early on in life, the better we are able to cope as adults, found a study by Emory University.

So mamas, hug your babies! 

Along with this improved coping ability comes improved response to illness – a Carnegie Mellon University study in 2015 found that individuals who had more frequent hugs experienced decreased severity of symptoms of the cold virus. 

Hugging can also function similar to a massage. A massage therapist’s hands exerting deep pressure on your muscles helps you feel relaxed and can improve pain. A tight hug can produce similar results by increasing blood flow to soft tissues (muscle, fascia, skin), decreasing those aches and pains. 

Are you a hugger? Why or why not? Leave me a note below!

Hannah Haro
Hannah Haro, PT, DPT is a physical therapist, wife to Daniel and mom to Mina (2018). She was born and raised in a small northern Michigan town, is bilingual, helps run a soccer clinic for kids with disabilities, is a Christian, and a partner at the Austin Stone Community Church. Though Hannah currently works as a PT in a pro bono clinic at University of St Augustine, she has previously worked as a babysitter, downhill ski instructor, math teacher, barista, and health coach. She likes to say she is in the business of rehabilitation: of people, as a PT; and of homes, as she and her husband are now on renovations for house #4 in as many years. She also loves coffee and anything chocolate, enjoying the green spaces of Austin, and a really good sci fi/fantasy novel while curled under a blanket.


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