The Healing Power of a HugOct 29, 2021 ● By Marlaina Donato
When we were children, a hug helped to take the sting out of a skinned knee or quell first-day-of-school jitters. In adulthood, hugs are not as plentiful or practical; many people lack partners or loved ones, and the gesture—both giving and receiving—is too often labeled as sentimentality. As we continue to move through life with pandemic restrictions, hugs can feel risky at a time when we need them the most.
A hug elicits a powerful shot of neurotransmitters like oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine, and we don’t necessarily need another human to reap the benefits. Wrapping our arms around a breeze-swept tree in the backyard or on a hiking trail can lower heart rate and set our brains abuzz with feel-good endorphins. Earlier this year, the forestry service in Iceland invited people to cuddle up to trees to offset COVID-19 isolation and get in a good dose of forest bathing. Scientific research, including a study from Carnegie Mellon University, backs what unapologetic huggers have always known: Even the most casual embrace can help to lower stress, boost immunity and promote a better night’s sleep.
Cuddling up with a stuffed animal is a part of everyday life for 43 percent of American adults, with men taking the lead. Befriending a plush toy is part of some trauma recovery programs and has a soothing effect on those navigating the dark waters of grief, loss and chronic anxiety. Snuggling up under a warm, weighted blanket is also akin to a hug, and has benefits much like the real thing.
Holding and being held strengthens the body’s defense systems, as well as romantic partnerships, friendships and our relationship with ourselves. Opening our arms can foster the spiritual discipline of not only giving, but receiving—a vital requirement in self-care. In a time of chaotic uncertainty, isolation and change, hugs can be medicine; they can also be a powerful metaphor and reminder to remain open, willing and beautifully human.
Marlaina Donato is a mind-body-spirit author and recording artist.