For decades we’ve known that babies won’t thrive without physical holding and affection. There is little that will comfort and settle small children as the warm embrace of their family. Yet it is still not uncommon for parents to stop hugging their kids as they reach puberty. And for many adults, the amount of physical nurturing we receive declines as we age, even as medical studies confirm that the health benefits of physical touch extend throughout our lives.
We lose touch with each other early in our adult lives as our needs for physical affection are confused with our emerging sexuality. Our discomfort and lack of understanding about our sexuality inadvertently colors our capacity to connect even in something as benign as a hug. I listened with both shock and grief as my 13-year-old daughter shared how she was warned at school with a PDA for hugging her boyfriend. “You can’t hug for more than 2 seconds,” she said. Much of our mistrust of physical affection is learned and the rigid personal boundary space we establish in response often only serves to later prevent our earnest desires to connect.
Virgina Satir, who was often referred to as the mother of family therapy, determined that “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” Her presumption is backed by research, which consistently demonstrates that our emotional wellbeing is deeply impacted by the physical love we experience and that touch and hugging are primary vehicles in the brain’s development of basic positive emotions. According to Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist at Bath University, “Touch affects the cerebellar brain system, an area of the brain where basic positive emotions such as trust and affection probably come from.”
As in the mind, so in the body as recent medical research at University of North Carolina found that both blood pressure and levels of Cortisol, the hormone produced when we’re under stress, were significantly lowered (particularly in women) when subjects hugged their partners for at least twenty seconds. Another study that took place in 2000 showed that hugging babies while they were given blood tests made them cry less and kept their heart rates steadier. Other studies suggest a strong link between increased hugs and lower risk of heart disease.
In addition to the clear health benefits, hugging also provides a window into the health of your relationship and offers an easy way to improve it. Hugging Until Relaxed is a therapeutic technique that encourages partners to hold each other while in a standing hug. Ultimately, both partners find stability and comfort in the embrace by achieving equilibrium of balance and closeness while holding each other. This technique, introduced by David Schnarch in Passionate Marriage, allows both partners to open up to a deeply intimate space where both are held and fully relaxed. This technique generally translates into better overall communication and more passionate intimacy. Opening up to being held is a powerful metaphor. A relaxed and full embrace allows us to feel and connect bodies in a way that literally couples us.