Opinion

The Science of Hugs

Almost everything you want to say to someone you can say with a hug. Hugs have a way of getting right to the point and there’s no faking them; if it’s a bad hug without genuine feeling, you’ll know straight away.

2020 has been the year of the anti-hug. Hugs are a no go area. I can’t lie, I’ve found it hard to cope. My natural instinct is to throw my arms around my family and friends. When I talk to you, I touch you; a hand on your arm, a tap on the shoulder, I’m drawn in towards you. I’m also a massage therapist and energy practitioner, so really, touch is my life. That warm feeling when you fall into a hug with a loved one or great friend? It’s the ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin. Released from the pituitary gland at the base of the brain, it’s produced in the hypothalamus when neurons in the brain are stimulated by a hug or by touch. Oxytocin acts as a messenger in the brain and relates to different behaviours including recognition, trust, anxiety and parent and child bonding. A good squeeze – a proper one, ideally for at least 20 seconds, will get those neurons excited, stimulate oxytocin production and lead to a reduction in blood pressure, while at the same time slowing your heart rate, reducing stress levels and helping you to feel calm and content.

So how have you felt this year with your lack of hugs? Are you desperate to grab hold of your friends and family? Have you noticed the lack of touch? Has it made you feel any different? Us Brits in particular tend to be a bit standoffish. We protect our personal space and we tend to not be physically demonstrative, but this year, it seems to me that we’re looking to fill that hug gap. When we came out of our confinement in May, I expected to be inundated with bookings for wax appointments, and that did happen, but what everyone really wanted has been the hands on therapies. I’ve seen a whopping 120% increase in massage treatments this summer compared to last year.

Massage, reflexology, reiki; treatments that mostly we count as a luxury, something for a special occasion, that you’ll treat yourself to on a holiday. But the science that validates these treatments is undeniable and really comes into its own this year. Lockdown, restrictions, lack of control, lack of privacy and uncertainty are all playing havoc with our emotions. Stress, anxiety and sleepless nights, each contributing to a lowered immune system. In basic terms, our bodies immune system is there to protect our body from infection. It’s made up of a collection of organs, cells and chemicals that work together to recognise and protect us from invaders. When our body is not operating normally; when it’s out of balance, then the immune system is weakened and we’re more susceptible to infections such as colds, the flu and of course, COVID-19.

When we get stressed, our body produces the stress hormone cortisol. In short spurts (the fight or flight mechanism for example), cortisol production is a good thing. However in those times of high stress when we get stuck in that mechanism – like this year, the body goes crazy and floods our system with too much of this hormone. Increased cortisol levels can lead to increased blood sugar levels, weight gain, digestive problems, heart disease and a suppressed immune system.

So you’ll be feeling pretty rotten and thinking that maybe a massage sounds like a good idea? From the minute that you make that decision to dedicate time to a massage, your body will start to relax. You’ve regained some control amidst the chaos and you’ve got something to look forward to in a year where so much has been taken away from us. Just one massage, or other energy therapy such as reflexology or reiki, can enhance those positive feelings. Your therapist makes you comfortable, you feel the basic human needs of connection and touch and just like that 20 second hug, your brain’s neurons are stimulated and oxytocin is released, making you feel good. The tension is reduced or released from your muscles and your body starts to soften. Your mind calms down and those zillion little worries and concerns suddenly don’t seem so pressing. Any physical pain you’ve been holding on to is also relieved and this is a big boost for the immune system. It helps to maintain white blood cell levels, and it’s these that identify foreign invaders in your system that would otherwise be reduced while the body suffers chronic pain. Massage improves circulation, improves the health and quality of your cells and tissues and makes them stronger. Lymphatic flow is improved and homeostasis, or balance, can start to return to the body.

“So how have you felt this year with your lack of hugs? Are you desperate to grab hold of your friends and family?”

Regular massage will build on all of this. Research suggests that through regular treatments, the immune system is strengthened. The body actively produces more lymphocytes – the cells which make antibodies and control immune responses. Perhaps most importantly for us this year, is the bodies response to massage in decreasing the levels of cortisol and increasing the production of serotonin and dopamine in addition to those super duper feel good endorphins.

2020 has ramped up our fight or flight response and massage has helped bring us back down again. As an added bonus we get the really good stuff thrown in too. Serotonin helps regulate mood, appetite and digestion while dopamine is the reward hormone (often activated by drug taking and social media likes!). Both can increase by up to 30% following a massage and that’s why you feel so dreamy when I’ve finished.

Regular massage also gives you a real connection with your therapist (who also gets a nice hit of oxytocin from giving you the treatment so everyone’s a winner), but this can also give you the chance to talk about how you’re feeling in a safe place with no outside judgement. Being able to talk freely is another big de-stresser, calming that fight or flight mechanism and lowering that continued cortisol production.

Social distancing has made life hard this year. We’re being reassured that it’s worth it and the time will come when we’ll be together again. Until then, try a massage, see how it makes you feel, have a good sleep and get yourself ready for a massive hug-fest in 2021.

The Science of Hugs
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