Justin McMillen, founder and CEO of Tree House Recovery, visits Fox 5 News in San Diego to talk about the benefits of hugging. According to McMillen, people are hugging more just not the right way. More often than not when people hug it’s with one arm over the shoulder or with a small tap on the shoulder. But to get the benefits, arms should meet around both people’s backs and there should be a small mutual squeeze for about 10 seconds. The benefits of doing this include:
- Being less likely to get sick
- Building trust
- Lowering stress
- Less anxiety
- Faster healing
- Decreased depression
- Lower blood pressure
Sound far-fetched? It’s actually not. When we hug someone the right away, it creates a chemical called oxytocin, which produces feelings of trust, closeness, and even love in some contexts. It’s one reason why oxytocin is sometimes called “the love hormone.” And while oxytocin is certainly responsible for the bond we feel when we hug someone, it has another interesting effect. Oxytocin lowers the amount of a very important stress hormone called cortisol.
Why is cortisol important? Well first let’s pretend you were being chased down by some dude with a knife (stay with me here). Your brain would create cortisol. As a result your heart would go faster, your blood pressure would increase, blood would surge to your lungs and muscles so you could run as fast and as long as possible, and all energy going to your digestion and immune system would be shifted to the lungs and muscles. This is a standard fight or flight stress response built for survival.
But now let’s be realistic. Most of us (hopefully) don’t spend much time getting chased by people with knives. But when things happen to make you worried, angry, sad, or upset your brain just sees stress and makes cortisol because it thinks you might be in danger. The problem is this cortisol doesn’t just go away — it builds up over time unless it’s neutralized. If it builds up then the effects that it causes just kind of linger. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure is higher, you’re just a little bit more anxious or “on edge”, your appetite is a little bit lower (you ever have so much to do that you forget to eat because you’re not hungry? That’s cortisol), and your immune system is just a bit weaker. Most importantly new research shows that high amounts of cortisol over an extended period is a huge factor in the cause of depression.
Let’s go back to Oxytocin now. The thing responsible for all those effects listed above. It’s not a magic hormone that just somehow creates all these wonderful effects. All it’s doing is neutralizing cortisol and helping to remove the effects of everyday stress. Our bodies relax and we feel better as a result.