The power of a hug

hug illustrationA hug is wonderful when you feel sad, stressed, tired and even when you feel good.

I love what the Free Hugs people do when they stand in a city centre holding a ‘Free Hugs’ sign. Their hugs produce human connection, vulnerability, smiles, laughter, positive emotion, and even sometimes tears, especially if it’s the first hug a person who has been suffering has experienced in a long while.

Hugs are also good for the heart. They increase our levels of the hormone ‘oxytocin’, which as well as being known for its role in trust, childbirth, and breastfeeding, is also a powerful ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. This basically means it helps protect the cardiovascular system.

From what? You might ask. From the negative side-effects of poor dietary and lifestyle choices and also from mental and emotional stress.

Oxytocin works by producing nitric oxide in our arteries, which then widens (dilates) our arteries. Nitric oxide helps our arteries stay flexible and also helps reduce blood pressure.

So, ultimately, hugs are cardioprotective too. And I’d say so for more than simply their oxytocin-and-therefore-nitric-oxide-inducing power, but because they make us feel relaxed, cared for, even loved. Hugs are medicine for the soul.

I remember crying in front of my mum and dad when I found out our beloved dog, Oscar, had osteosarcoma and was unlikely to live beyond a few months. Mum hugged me and I melted, collapsed in her arms. I felt like a child again, being loved by and tended to by my mum.

I think we have that memory of being tended to by our parents as children, where we were upset or in pain and we knew that ‘everything is going to be OK’, ‘the pain will go soon’, or ‘it’s OK, Mum (or Dad) will fix it’. It’s a memory held deep in the unconscious but whose emotions are released in our adult lives when we receive a hug.

So hugs are medicine for the heart and they are medicine for the soul. If we could bottle hugs, we would take our daily dose without question.

Here’s the thing, you can have a daily dose. You don’t need to wait to be hugged. You can hug others.

As a typical Scottish male (OK, I’m not really able to speak for my entire nation but I’ll make a generalisation based on my 45-year-old observations), hugging didn’t come naturally to me. To be honest, I felt like a sissy if someone hugged me. I’d do the whole, awkward, chest-held-back-not sure-about-touching thing, followed by a little pat on the back, secretly hoping that the hug would end soon.

But I learned to enjoy hugs. I think it happened when I was in my late 20’s and Mum (again to the rescue) looked after me for a week while I suffered a bout of depression. It was the first time in my adult life I opened up to someone. I think something shifted in me then, a willingness to open up to others that I’d not showed before. I then became an initiator of hugs.

Even in the bar on a Thursday night after work (that was our standard weekly visit), I’d say goodbye to my friends at the end of the night with a hug. At first, some of them were a little awkward but soon got the hang of it too. It came natural to some others. But within a month or two, a hug was the standard goodbye for us after a few drinks in the bar.

So I’d add that hugs are also contagious. As we hug others, we share a connection. It opens us a little. It feels good. And that makes it contagious.

So given the medicine that hugs carry, that they are free, and contagious (in a good way), it might be a good idea to see if you can add a few more hugs to your day.

You’d be doing yourself a favour, but each time you hug you also deliver a gentle dose of medicine to the heart and soul of another person too.

And that is the power of a hug.

8 thoughts on “The power of a hug

  1. Mark Evans

    Dear David,

    That’s a wonderful article about the power that a hug can bring to both the giver and taker. I was brought up in a house where hugs weren’t given. If I fell over, I was told to ” get up!” If I was upset and crying I was told to “shut up I’ll give you something to cry for!” Those are just two examples of many, where I needed a hug and got the opposite or worse.
    I’m not saying my life was awful, but it was just the way it was. In fact the first hug I really remember, was when I started dating a particular girl when I was 17. She went to hug me but I flinched from her. I though I was going to get hit when all she wanted to do was show me that she loved me. She understandably got upset and so did I. We dated for sometime and she helped me get over my fear of hugs. So much so I no longer flinch and can give hugs to others and accept them without any fears. Well not much fear!
    Hugs are free and should be given on prescription but without any £8:40 charge!

    Take care,

    Mark Evans

  2. Love this!! I’m a yoga teacher and I love hugging my students. You can tell the ones who will immediately be open to sharing an embrace – and others who may need a little ‘coaxing.’ But I have witnessed the most marvelous ‘heart openings’ as they get used to sharing a hug. One student in particular at first was stiff as a board. And now if I’m talking with someone after class, she waits patiently until I’m done so that we can hug. So wonderful.

  3. David R. Hamilton PhD

    Thanks Maureen. That is sooooo nice, your student now waiting for her hug. Made me smile. 🙂

  4. David R. Hamilton PhD

    Thanks so much for your comment Mark. I know a lot of people will relate to your experience and your words will help them see some light at the end of the tunnel, I would think. 🙂

  5. I saw your Twitter photo last week and checked you out because I thought that anybody who has a sweet dog like Oscar must be worth checking out! I am in the middle of your book, I Heart Me–again because I saw you in an interview give credit to Oscar. I am so sorry to read of his early passing. I have been through a few dog deaths (Labrador -Rottweilers) and it never gets easier. Currently I have 2 rescued lab mixes and an adorable beagle who is my heart. I have a friend who says that there are 2 kinds of people in the world, those who love dogs, and those who don’t get it. You get it.

    And because I don’t want to leave this on a soppy note, I will tell a funny hugging story. Well, funny to ME. I met a friend’s aunt at a family gathering and as I was going to say hello to her, I tripped and jetted into her. I ended up right in her face. Panicked, I kissed her. On the lips. Thereafter for the next 15 years, whenever she saw me, she stuck her arms out and greeted me like a robot, patting me on the shoulders and literally keeping me at arm’s length. Hugs from the States, 🙂 Hali

  6. Dawn Lee

    Written so beautifully nothing like a hug … I also grew up were hugs went given out so didn’t realize what I was missing till I was older … my mum stopped me in my tracks when I was in my thirties as I use to give her a hug good bye when I was going she use to be a bit resistant lol but got use to it and said she enjoyed it … she said one day that she wasn’t use to showing affections and was please that the hug had helped her to open up … I was like shocked as I never gave it a thought … it just shows the power of a hug ☺

  7. Gill Furlong

    I’m not in a good place at the moment , feel very lonely ! I crave for hugs & certainly feel better momentarily when giving & receiving one! A hug makes one feel whole again!

  8. David R. Hamilton PhD

    Thanks for your really kind words, Hali. You seem to get it too! I laughed out loud at your kissing/hugging story. 🙂 Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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