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Hugs for Health & Happiness
Embracing friends and family cuts stress and anxiety: hugging strangers fosters fear
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Unbeknownst to most of us, today is “National Hug Day”.
This unofficial annual holiday was conceived in 1986 by Kevin Zaborney and Adam Olis.
They chose January 21 because it’s a midpoint between Christmas and Valentine’s Day, when people are often at an emotional low.
Zaborney and Olis hoped that a National Hug Day would help reduce American’s fear of showing their feelings in public.
More recently, Australian native Juan Mann conceived the now-famous “free hugs” campaign.
He’d been living in London when he’d had to return home with only a carry-on bag, and, as he says, “… a world of troubles. No one to welcome me back, no place to call home.”
Juan wanted someone to be waiting for him, happy to see him, and give him a smile and a hug. So he made a sign with “Free Hugs” on both sides and held it up at the busiest pedestrian intersection in Sydney.
After 15 minutes of people ignoring him, a woman stopped and told him she’d recently lost her daughter and her dog. They hugged, and as Juan said, “… when we parted, she was smiling.”
Juan became a man on a mission to get people to reach out and hug a stranger to brighten up their lives.
The Free Hugs campaign spread across the city until – in what seems like a remarkably Grinch-like reaction – Sydney officials banned the campaign.
Is there any measureable benefit to hugging … or any downside to hugging strangers?
Austrian study finds hugs beneficial … only among friends and family
Austrian researchers agree that hugs do exert beneficial effects … but only if the huggers know and trust each other (MUA 2013).
Otherwise, hugging can become an emotional burden that actually raises stress and anxiety levels.
According to psychologists at the Medical University of Vienna, hugs can have opposite effects, depending on the context.
Hugging someone you know and trust can cut stress, fear and anxiety, lower blood pressure, promote a sense of wellbeing, and improve memory performance.
These positive effects are caused – at least in part – by the secretion of the “love hormone”, oxytocin.
Oxytocin, a peptide produced by the pituitary gland, boosts bonding, interaction, and closeness between parents, children and couples.
Women release oxytocin during childbirth and breastfeeding … an effect proven to strengthen a mother’s bond with the baby and increase milk flow.
The positive effects on the oxytocin level can be achieved simply as a result of the increased empathic behavior, says Viennese neurophysiologist Jürgen Sandkühler: “Studies have shown that children whose mothers have been given extra oxytocin have higher levels of the hormone themselves, i.e. solely as a result of the mother’s [warm, loving] behavior.” (MUA 2013)
Couples that touch are healthier and more relaxed University of North Carolina researchers conducted three revealing studies over the past decade.
They found elevated oxytocin levels and lower levels of stress and blood pressure in partners in healthy relationships.
For their first clinical study, they recruited 183 cohabitating couples (66 African American, 117 Caucasian; 74 women, 109 men) and measured their blood pressure response to stress.
The participants were divided into a warm-contact group and a no-contact group.
Prior to a stressful public speaking task, the two groups performed different regimens:
  • The no-contact group rested quietly for 10 minutes and 20 seconds.
  • The warm-contact group underwent a 10-minute period of handholding while viewing a romantic video, followed by a 20-second hug with their partner.
Compared with the no-contact group, the warm-contact group showed lower blood pressure and heart rate increases in response to the public speaking task.
The effects of warm contact were comparable for men and women, and were greater for African Americans compared with Caucasians.
As the authors wrote, “These findings suggest that affectionate relationships with a supportive partner may contribute to lower reactivity to stressful life events and may partially mediate the benefit of marital support on better cardiovascular health.” (Grewen KM et al. 2003)
The UNC team then recruited 59 premenopausal women for another study that produced similarly positive results (Light KC et al. 2004).
The participating women who reported having more frequent hugs than others in the study also had higher average oxytocin levels and below-average blood pressure.
After warm contact with their husbands/partners, ending with hugs, the participants’ oxytocin levels rose but their blood pressure, adrenaline levels, and heart rate dropped.
As the researchers wrote, “… frequent hugs between spouses/partners are associated with lower blood pressure and higher oxytocin levels in premenopausal women [and] oxytocin-mediated reduction in central adrenergic activity [i.e., having to do with adrenaline and/or noradrenaline release] …” (Light KC et al. 2004)
Those findings were bolstered by the similar outcomes of a study among 38 cohabiting couples (men and women) aged 20 to 49 years (Grewen KM et al. 2005).
Hugs from strangers cause stress
The emotional benefits of hugging appear when we embrace someone we know very well … but hugging strangers can raise stress levels.
When we receive unwanted hugs from strangers or even people we know, oxytocin is not released. Instead, as Dr. Sandkühler says, hugging strangers “… can lead to pure stress because our normal distance-keeping behavior is disregarded. In these situations, we secrete the stress hormone cortisol.” (MUA 2013)
According to the Viennese neurophysiologist, “Everyone is familiar with such feelings from our everyday lives, for example, if someone we don’t know comes too close to us for no apparent reason. This violation of our normal distance-keeping behavior is then generally perceived as disconcerting or even as threatening.” (MUA 2013)
“The positive effect [of hugging] only occurs if the people trust each other, if the associated feelings are present mutually and if the corresponding signals are sent out,” says Sandkühler. “If people do not know each other, or if the hug is not desired by both parties, its effects are lost.”
Dr. Sandkühler put it this way: “Hugging is good, but no matter how long or how often someone hugs, it is trust that’s more important.”
  • Grewen KM, Anderson BJ, Girdler SS, Light KC. Warm partner contact is related to lower cardiovascular reactivity. Behav Med. 2003 Fall;29(3):123-30.
  • Grewen KM, Girdler SS, Amico J, Light KC. Effects of partner support on resting oxytocin, cortisol, norepinephrine, and blood pressure before and after warm partner contact. Psychosom Med. 2005 Jul-Aug;67(4):531-8.
  • Light KC, Grewen KM, Amico JA. More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Biol Psychol. 2005 Apr;69(1):5-21. Epub 2004 Dec 29. Medical University of Vienna (MUA).
  • Hugging is good for you – but only with someone you know very well. January 18, 2013. Accessed at
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