The Surprising Reasons Hugging Can Improve Your Health

Hugs are a unique human behavior in that they are not exclusive to one singular emotion. As Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum researchers point out in a 2018 study, humans may hug in greeting as a social norm, in moments of joy, or as a response to fear.

So what happens to the body in the midst of a warm embrace? Also known as the "love hormone," touch that's experienced through a hug, cuddle, or massage prompts the release of oxytocin (via Harvard Health Publishing). In addition to promoting muscle contractions during childbirth, this feel-good hormone also strengthens the emotional connection experienced between parent and child during the act of breastfeeding. Similarly, those warm and fuzzy feelings you experience when falling in love are all due in part to the release of oxytocin.

As a result, there is much to gain in the realm of health benefits when it comes to hugging, according to psychologist Joe Rock who states via the Cleveland Clinic, "The health benefits of giving and receiving hugs are quite impressive. Hugs have a therapeutic effect on people."

Why hugging benefits your mental health

While oxytocin may be known as the love hormone, cortisol, on the other hand, is known as the stress hormone. Scientists have discovered a correlation between depression and low levels of oxytocin (via Harvard Health Publishing), as well as high levels of cortisol (via Verywell Health). When hugging, our oxytocin levels get a boost, while cortisol levels are simultaneously reduced (via Cleveland Clinic). Not only does hugging relieve stress but the decrease in cortisol production also improves our quality of sleep, reports The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Try cuddling with your partner throughout the night and you may find yourself waking up feeling well-rested and less stressed.

Even better, we don't always need to be on the receiving end of a hug — giving a hug can have its health benefits, too. A 2022 study published in PLOS ONE involving over 120 volunteers revealed that hugging a cushion designed to simulate breathing sensations resulted in decreases in participant anxiety prior to taking a math test. In regard to their findings, the study authors stated, "We were excited to find that holding the breathing cushion, without any guidance, produced a similar effect on anxiety in students as a meditation practice." Experts at the Cleveland Clinic say that similar benefits can also be gained from hugging a pet or body pillow.

Why hugging benefits your physical health

Hugging can improve our health in other ways, such as reducing heart rate and blood pressure and boosting immunity, explains psychologist Joe Rock via the Cleveland Clinic. Not only that, but hugs may also make us less prone to getting sick.

"We know that people experiencing ongoing conflicts with others are less able to fight off cold viruses," said lead researcher Sheldon Cohen in a 2014 study published in ​​Psychological Science, which examined the effects of hugs and social support on one's ability to fight off viral infection. Their findings showed that ill participants who felt a strong sense of emotional support from others and who frequently received hugs experienced more mild cold symptoms and were at a lesser risk for stress-related illness in the first place.

It's no wonder that hugging can improve our physical and mental health. So how much hugging should we aim to get in each day? Therapist Dr. Castaldo tells The Healthy, "I recommend hugging until you're completely relaxed, a minimum of six minutes per day."