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Imagine getting a prescription from your health care provider that instructed you to hug for a minimum of 20 seconds per day, every day. Would you chuckle and shrug it off?
Now imagine that this simple and perhaps silly sounding prescription could actually strengthen your ability to ward off colds and flues, improve your mental and physical health, and extend your life span. Would you take it a little more seriously?
Recent studies are lending credibility to what many of us already know about hugs (they make us feel great), and are providing some insight into why loneliness and isolation can make us sick. According to new research out of Carnegie Mellon University, receiving a hug for just 10 seconds a day can boost your immune system, help you fight infection, ease depression, and reduce fatigue. Bump that up to just 20 seconds a day and you can enjoy the added benefit of a reduction in the harmful effects of stress, including how it impacts your blood pressure and heart rate.
According to the study’s lead author, Dr. Sheldon Cohen, people who experience ongoing conflicts with others are less able to fight off infection, and those who report a lack of social support are more susceptible to the negative effects of stress, such as depression and anxiety. Receiving perceived support in the form of a hug may be one of the reasons for the multitude of health benefits.
“This (research) suggests that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress,” Cohen said. “The apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioural indicator of support and intimacy… Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection.”
Hugs and other forms of physical touch such as hand-holding also increases levels of oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone in the body with powerful, health-giving properties, and conversely lowers levels of stress hormones like cortisol.
Hugging serves to strengthen feelings of connection between people, can alleviate fears around death and dying, and decrease feelings of loneliness. With the rising epidemic of loneliness, addiction, depression and anxiety, the benefits of something as simple and (and inexpensive!) as hugging begins to take on new significance.
Perhaps all of this is encouraging you to take the ‘hug prescription’ more seriously. As psychotherapist Virginia Satir famously said:
“We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”
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