The 20-Second Stress-Buster: Hugging

Self on 01.12.12
Contributor bio

Photo credit: AAGAMIA/Image Bank/Getty Images

Recently my science podcast co-host and I began to wonder why some people seem to be huggers while others shrink at the prospect of a lingering embrace. We did some research, and it turns out that copping a cuddle has huge health benefits, something a hug junky may instictively know.

An Oxytocin Love Fest

The average hug lasts just three seconds. But 20 seconds is the ideal length of time for an embrace. The reason is that the pressure of a good snuggle gets the oxytocin flowing. We typically think of the hormone oxytocin -- the "love drug"-- in terms of childbirth and breastfeeding. But it turns out that men and women produce the hormone on a daily basis in our blood and brains, and petting your dog or cat, dancing, knocking boots and singing together are just a few ways we can get this good-times hormone flowing. Hugging is one of the fastest ways to get a kick of oxytocin.

The health benefits are many. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone that allows you to establish a deep connection with others; it's the glue of society. Even chimps hug. But it also calms your nervous system.

Cuddling, Cardiovascular Health and Women

A University of North Carolina study found that women recorded greater reductions in blood pressure than men after hugs with their partners. They also had lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can wreak havoc on your mind and body -- not to mention sleep patterns.

The study's lead psychologist, Dr. Karen Grewen, wrote in Psychosomatic Medicine: "Greater partner support is linked to higher oxytocin levels for both men and women. However, the importance of oxytocin and its potentially cardio protective effects may be greater for women."

Hugging Workshops

According to Dr. Charmaine Griffiths (the spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation) "Scientists are increasingly interested in the possibility that positive emotions can be good for your health.

So it should be no surprise that cuddle workshops have cropped up over the past five years, albeit in London, a city that doesn't seem like it would be the epicenter of "hugging it out." But maybe that's exactly why some are gathering for three hour workshops to lovingly bear hug one another. Although, after a friend of mine watched a clip of one of the workshops, he looked visably shaken as he disdainfully pronounced it "a fully clothed hug orgy." Which leads me to the question:

Could Hugging be Hardwired?

Some of my friends shirk open armed embraces while others have you in a head lock before you even know it. Shelley Taylor, a UCLA psychologist who identified the "tend and befriend" response in humans, posits that an oxytocin receptor gene is responsible for the ways that we interact socially. The oxytocin receptor gene has two versions -- an "A" variant and a "G" variant. You could have two As or an A and G, and in either case you'd have some ambivalence when it came to social situations. However if you had two Gs in your genetic makeup, you'd be pro-social. Meaning you'd be full of empathy and somewhat hardwired to spread your positive fairy dust. Which could make you quite the hugger, looking for your next oxytocin fix.

Why Did Men Create the "Bro Hug?"

Men produce 10 times the amount of testosterone than women do, which is fine except that testosterone inhibits oxytocin. And while this can explain away the reason why some men are wary to "share," the social contract that we all enter into when we're inducted into this gender-as-performance world maintains that men should show their feelings (particularly affection) sparingly. Doubly so when it comes to expressing emotions with other men. Hence the "bro hug."

We've all witnessed the side hug, the chest thump, the bear hug lift and the hug-while-aggressively-thumping-each-other-on-the-back hug. The sad part is that our oxytocin-depleted XY friends need the 20-second hug the most, and the bro hug doesn't quite cut it. But 20 seconds seems reasonable enough, at least until you actually start counting it out: one Mississippi, two, Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five Mississippi, six Mississippi...

The obvious source of my personal hug research is my 3-year-old daughter. But she's outta there at about 3.5 seconds. Which means my husband has been the recipient of an onslaught of when-are-these-going-to-end? hugs. In the meantime I'm feeling the benefits, and presumably he is, too.

What about you -- when's the last time you spent a good chunk of a minute in a (fully clothed) embrace?

More Stories on Stress, Happiness and Cuddles
Kids Smile 400 Times a Day – What About Adults?
5 Fast Stress Busters for Instance Relaxation
Using 5 Love Languages to Give Thanks