The science of a hug – how a simple cuddle can boost happiness and de-stress

This week at Vavista HQ we’re celebrating the good old-fashioned hug. Be it with your other half, children, friends or even as a simple greeting – studies have shown that a hug has the ability to make us happier, less stressed and even aid weight-loss, Vavista wellness expert, Alisa Burke explains how…

“Oxytocin is a type of neuropeptide that is released into our system by the pituitary gland in our brain when we make human contact – such as hugging and cuddling. Neuropeptides are little information messengers that have a wide range of functions – such as pain relief, metabolism, learning, memory, social behaviours and food intake. Oxytocin could be dubbed the ‘love drug’, as not only do its levels become significantly elevated through human contact – especially during sex and orgasm – but it’s presence in our system makes us feel good and form closer relationships more easily. It also plays a key role in how mothers bond with their babies.

“In other words, it’s not just the physical enjoyment of how a hug feels that makes hugging a beneficial pastime, but all the benefits that the subsequent oxytocin release creates, too.

“Before we look at ways to maximise that oxytocin release, let’s look at 10 ways that a raised oxytocin level can be beneficial:

1. A boost in oxytocin can make us more generous and compassionate to others.
2. It can also help give us a more positive outlook on life. A UCLA study in 2011 on 326 people linked raised oxytocin to optimism and self-esteem. This is interesting as it suggests we can influence the genes we were born with. We may have genes that mean we are more susceptible to (say) depression, but how we actually feel is something we can influence. So in this case, hugging can push us up the ‘happiness scale’. In fact, studies estimate 50% of our happiness is genetic, 10% dictated by circumstances but a whopping 40% determined by us and how we are nurtured. So take your happiness into your own hands!
3. Higher oxytocin = lower blood pressure.
4. It can even relieve pain – such as headaches and cramps.
5. It can reduce social anxiety, too. Ever entered a party alone and felt relieved by a welcoming hug?
6. Here’s a big one for Vavista, raised oxytocin levels may promote a weight loss effect in obese cases – a study on mice has shown a positive metabolic effect in obese mice.
7. While oxytocin makes us seek and bond with groups, it may not all be good news however. Such studies also suggested it makes us less empathic towards people not in our group or social circle!
8. Oxytocin has the ability to lower cortisol which reduces stress. Stress can be ageing, bad for our mood, digestion and weight if we remain in a stress response too much of the time. Rubbish day at work and just need a hug? This may be the reason why!
9. Oxytocin protects against inflammation. The British Heart Foundation says a recent study on hugging presents research findings that show support from a partner, in this case with a hug, can help heart health especially in women.
10. It also promotes dopamine release which triggers our ‘pleasure reward system’. This pleasurable or happy feeling we get helps us trust that person we hug more easily next time we meet – so helps us stick close to friends.

“Single ladies – don’t despair. You can produce raised oxytocin levels without having to be in any sort of relationship with anyone. Any body contact such as a hand shake (which can even be by a stranger!), as long as there is a sense of trust, can do the trick. (As an aside this makes me ponder over the importance of touch, like handshakes, in doing business now that increasing amounts of business take place in the virtual space).

“Give yourself a hug. Try thinking ‘I’m here for me’. It’s a tough world we live in. Take a moment to have some self compassion. Even cupping our hands to our face raises oxytocin levels. Your body will immediately calm down. Taking a few moments to do this and be kind and caring to ourselves is a good tool to use in learning to love ourselves unconditionally. Being fully in self acceptance allows us some space and sense of safety which may help us see concerns we are facing more positively.

“Get yourself a massage. Yes, even hands-on therapy from a stranger will boost your oxytocin levels. Some studies have also shown that a massage can help fight stress and help with body image.

“If you are in an intimate relationship then make some extra ‘between the sheets’ time. Sexual arousal increases both dopamine and oxytocin levels significantly and oxytocin can help sustain erections in men. Not in the mood? Some studies show a low level rise in oxytocin levels from even thinking about a loved one. Practise this on a stressful commute to work on Monday morning!

couple in bed

Not in a serious relationship yet? You will get a rush of oxytocin from orgasm, even from ‘casual’ sex, but Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist, heeds that the brain chemical cocktail of a new romance (dopamine, adrenalin and PEA) is short lived – at best one to two years.

The attachment, trust, security and companionship we get from a longer-term relationship and that oxytocin encourages, is what we we are biologically predisposed for as it sets up the stable environment for nurturing offspring. Relationships are ever evolving and tough to navigate. But even those tough times will deepen your learning and probably your relationship and all that rich shared history between you.

Especially with the busy-ness of work and often when kids are also thrown into the mix, sustaining the physical intimacy and joy of a long-term relationship may feel tough. Do ask for help so you can make time for each other. Young kids can peel carrots! Maybe reflect on how often you are saying ‘yes’ to things. Do not try and take it all on or accept every invitation. By saying ‘no’ sometimes and not having to keep all balls in the air, you will be more able to be fully present to the people you are with and increase opportunities for those hugs!”

Alisa Burke is Vavista’s wellness expert and is on hand for Vavista Programme subscribers to work through one-to-one consultations to address any ‘stuck’ issues they may have and help them unlock their potential. Not subscribed yet? Find more information on the Vavista 12-week weight-loss programme here and join today.