What’s In A Hug? - The Power Of Touch And Why We Pursue Human Contact

A busy underground train on a Monday morning. As commuters pack on their way to work, human contact seems inevitable. But when we are given the choice, how does human contact affect the way we behave?

More often than not, we pursue social contact as a way to self-determine our own selves. Rubbing the arm of a loved one, a tap on a friend’s shoulder, or the tiny hand of a child reaching out to her mother are common gestures that help us reconnect our inner self to others. Likewise, a hug is a nurturing gesture of comfort, compassion, or happiness that can express more than words can tell. Seal to an intimate connection, hugs are all about finding contact. While the act of hugging has evolved throughout human history, even today there are different limitations on what people are comfortable with: some may be OK with hugging on a first meeting, while others may reserve their hugs for someone they have a close bond with. But what happens to our body and mind when we hug? Science investigated and found out that hugs mean a lot more than just physically embracing another person.

According to Dr. Uvnäs Moberg - renowned author and specialist - a hormone called “oxytocin” is released by our brain when we have a physical contact with another person, as we do when we hug. In women, oxytocin helps produce contractions at childbirth and milk ejection in breastfeeding. But that’s not all.

Often referred to as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone, oxytocin seems to play a role in social bonding and social behavior as well. Research identified that the neuropeptide hormone helps build trust, empathy, love, and affection.

As such, we long for physical contact as a way to connect ourselves to others. That is why social touch is not solely related to humans. Among non-human primates, social grooming triggers a physical stimulation and endorphin release that make touch pleasant and sought after. As a consequence, social touch fosters social standing, reinforces reciprocity, and builds up cooperative alliances. Examples in nature are easy to find: as monkeys groom, elephants link trunks, and dogs nuzzle - humans hug.

Besides forming the basis of human communication and bonding, touch seems to have some incredible emotional and physical health benefits to make us long for it. Oxytocin reduces our stress levels by lowering the amount of cortisol, the stress hormone, and decreases blood pressure as well as pain, and anxiety.

In order to understand how social touch and physical contact affect our lives, we spoke to experts in the fields of psychology, social behaviour, and happiness research and found several reasons why a hug is just what we need sometimes.



“Physical presence of another human being has an added benefit on our psychology”

Carly Abramovitz is a clinical psychologist based in Cape Town, South Africa. Offering individual psychotherapy with a focus on expat therapy and therapy for self growth, Carly blogs on Carly’s Couch and holds sessions in person or via Skype.

In your blog, you wrote that everyone needs human interaction. How is social touch - and hugging - relating to this?

I think social contact, including physical contact is really important. We are mammals and it is necessary to our survival to be touched as infants, and I believe necessary to our wellbeing as adults. Hugging is something that can feel really soothing but there are good hugs and bad hugs in my opinion. Good hugs are genuine, mutually enjoyable, and are meant as an act of care and connection. Bag hugs are invasive, feel needy or intrusive, and either linger too long or feel sexually inappropriate. When we hug another person there is an exchange of energy. It should feel that you receive as much as you are giving. There is a beautiful mutuality in that.

You wrote that people use social media to gain self-validation. Do you think that social media may replace face-to-face contact more and more moving forward in terms of social connection/relationship?

I think social media is already replacing face-to-face contact in a lot of different ways. I provide therapy to people living overseas. I do so over Skype. Although we are face-to-face, it is different from being in the same room together. There are ways in which social media provides tools for connection and sharing but the problem is that these methods do not involve the experience of sharing in a physical space together. I do believe that the physical presence of another human being has an added benefit on our psychology. Being able to feel the other person’s energy levels and to be able to reach out and touch that person takes it to another level.

Virginia Satir, renowned family therapist, once said “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” Do you think hugs may be an effective therapeutic tool?

I think hugs are a controversial topic for therapists because in our training we are told we mustn’t hug. I do hug my clients but only if they initiate it. If I need to interpret that afterwards I do but mostly I understand that there is a need to share in something physically intimate, especially after sharing in so much intimacy during the therapy. I would never stop someone from wanting to express themselves with a hug because I think that would be shaming but I am sometimes aware of the ways in which hugs and other physical gestures can be used manipulatively. I don’t use hugs as a therapeutic tool although I have touched someone’s hand before as a way of showing something that couldn’t be articulated with words. It’s not the therapist’s place to impose physical contact with the client, in my opinion, but sometimes you just have to go with your gut.



“Touch communicates understanding and can facilitate open communication.”

Based in Montreal, Canada, Angela Di Paola is a professional social worker and certified life coach. Angela owns a private practice and also works for the McGill University Health Center.

As Relationship Coach, you help people build stronger relationships with others or as individuals. Does social touch come into play? If so, how?

Absolutely. Social touch, when consensual, plays a significant role in developing and maintaining intimacy in relationships. The familiarity of the touch often is associated with the level of intimacy in the relationship along with the type of relationship. Acquaintances will not touch each other the same way as a couple in a romantic relationship would. Much research has already been done which shows how non sexual physical contact, for instance hugs or back rubs, can strengthen the emotional bond between two people. Even hand holding, shoulder squeezes, or simply touching the other's lap, can create a sense of safety and comfort between two people. Touch communicates understanding, and as such, can facilitate open communication, especially with regards to more sensitive topics and discussions which are necessary for relationships to flourish.

When I work as a relationship coach, I often try to explore with couples how they engage in social touching. What I notice, is that it tends to be an unconscious and automatic act, often in response to some sort of emotional stimulus. For instance, when one person is upset and tearful, the other will use social touch as means for comfort (rubbing the back, touching the lap, etc). Certainly these automatic responses along with any other form of social touch which fosters intimacy is encouraged and commended.

What I also ask couples to do is to actively engage in social touching, and if possible, to make it part of their routine. I ask them to use the means of touch that the couple is most comfortable with. For instance, if the couple normally feels comfortable hugging one another, then I will help them determine a common situation wherein they can purposefully hug each other. I would then encourage them consistently use that situation to hug one another until our next session. Frequently couples choose to hug when they greet and leave each other, and commit to doing so for the week or so in between our sessions. And so, in our next session, I check in with them. Often, they provide positive feedback, and tend to say that they feel a stronger connection between them. By actively and routinely using social touch, I notice that the couple reinforces a sense of security and connectivity between them, which continues to strengthen their relationship.

How do you empower people who need to build stronger relationships with others (whether family members, loved ones, friends, or colleagues)?

The key to a successful relationship is knowing what you need from that relationship and how to communicate those needs. These needs of course differ depending on the type of relationship. For instance what one may need from a romantic relationship is very different from what one may need from a work relationship. The trouble often lies when one is unable to identify these needs. After all, without knowing one's needs, it becomes very difficult to describe them to a partner or explain how they are not being met. Instead what tends to happen is that feelings are hurt, assumptions are made, and the reaction is to attack or withdraw from the other person without necessarily addressing the actual issue. Neither scenario fosters growth in the relationship. In fact, the opposite tends to happen, and the relationship tends to drift further away.

I empower my clients by helping them recognize their relationship needs and by showing them techniques to communicate these needs in a way that foster discussion rather than resistance. One way to do so is by encouraging my clients to examine their own values and expectations as concretely as possible. For instance, a common value is respect. Therefore instead of simply saying "I want to be respected," I encourage my clients to describe what respect means to them. Their definition of respect (or any other value) may be entirely different from somebody else's, and so it's important that they understand what meaning they themselves attribute to that value. In knowing what their own values are, and how they expect those values to be respected (through their definition of that value), the client is better equipped to understand their own needs and communicate them clearly to others.
Another way to strengthen relationships is knowing how to manage conflicts. I empower my clients by encouraging them to take a moment to understand why somebody else's action upset them rather than immediately reacting to it. To do so, I ask my clients to identify what they are feeling, the event\behaviour that led to that feeling, and finally their interpretation of that event/behavior. Essentially the client would ask themselves three questions. What am I feeling? What happened that made me feel this way? Why did it make me feel this way?

Ex: You are supposed to meet a friend for dinner and this friend is an hour late. What am I feeling? Frustrated and disrespected. What happened to make me feel this way? My friend is an hour late. Why did my friend being late make me feel frustrated and disrespected? Because to me it seems that my friend does not care about wasting my time.

Once client understands what they are feeling and why, the next step is for them to decide what they want to do about it. Sometimes the client may decide that the situation is not important and is able to let it go. This is different from avoidance, which is not addressing something that is upsetting, and the danger with avoidance is that it fosters resentment which is toxic to relationships. Therefore, if the situation needs to be addressed and the goal is resolution rather than conflict, then I encourage my clients to focus on the action (not attack the person) and own what they say using "I statement" when describing their feelings and their interpretations of the other's actions. In doing so, their issue is presented in a way that fosters discussion rather than confrontation.

For instance there is a very clear difference between

"You don't care about my time and you don't respect me which is obvious because you are late."

and

"I feel very frustrated and disrespected when you are late, because to me it seems that my time is not important."

The first is accusatory and will likely foster a defensive response which tends to create more conflict. The second explains how the action made the person feel, and allows the other a chance to acknowledge or offer an alternative explanation for the behavior. It is in this type of dialogue that resolution occurs and the relationship becomes stronger.



“Touching during social interactions can be a highly complex activity.”

Life Coach and Certified Autism Specialist, Jaclyn Hunt helps her patients achieve happiness, peace of mind, and, in general, a balanced life. She currently sees patients all over the United states.

In your blog, you wrote that all individuals need a social environment to survive. To what extent do you think social touch plays a role in this?

I may not be qualified to discuss social touch in a clinical way but I do see the effects of lack of touch and contact with others in my clients. Many of them are particularly starved for romantic attention. Having someone in their lives where they can feel that physical connection helps with anxiety tremendously. I have many clients lacking social touch, a basic need for us all, because they are not able to interact in socially acceptable ways. If we change that, the opportunities for social touch will increase. Taking this question from another perspective, touching during social interactions is also a highly complex activity. Flirting, for instance, is a form of communication signaling romantic interest and has a wide range of ways it can be interpreted. Many of my clients do not know how to flirt and it is far too complex to teach in one session. Luckily, flirting is on a continuum where some people require more of it and others require very little. I teach my clients enough to find success. The goal is to increase social skills and the opportunities for social touch so that everyone can enjoy the social world to its fullest extent.

You also wrote that many people are often not aware of the body language they are sharing with the world. How much is body language telling about ourselves?

This is an interesting question, particularly for my clients who rely heavily on verbal communication. The vast majority of communication is non-verbal. This means that body language accounts for a huge amount of what we are conveying to each other. Likewise, those who fall on the autism spectrum are missing a huge amount of information. Body language tells us quite a bit about each other. It is a highly complex social construct that has developed throughout our history. It can even vary greatly from culture to culture. Starting with the face, eye contact is the initial first contact two people make with each other before speaking even begins. Eye contact signals genuine interest and helps us to see the non-verbal cues the other person is sending us. Many of my clients have simply been told to “make eye contact because it is important” and they end up developing a cold stare. I work hard to re-train them to make more purposeful and informative eye contact. The language then stems out from there. What is the person doing with their eyebrows or forehead, are they smiling or frowning? Is there a look of shock or awe and how do we distinguish between the two? You can see how complex communication gets just by focusing on the face. Next, we move down to the rest of the body. Proximity, for instance, is a huge signal that can determine how comfortable someone is with you or not. I have witnessed clients unknowingly standing too close or too far away from someone they are attempting to engage in a conversation. In one of these instances, I noticed a client was getting too uncomfortable with the proximity of the other person and he kept stepping back. The person he was speaking with wanted to get closer to not only hear him in a loud room but also because they were connecting and having a good conversation. The two of them ended up clear across the room because of the non-verbal misunderstanding of him stepping back and her stepping closer. Obviously, we cannot go over every instance of body language here but I always felt that story to be very appropriate when describing body language. Lastly, I have had a client tell me that it looks to him that people are speaking to each other psychically and that he doesn’t have the same ability to connect with people. I believe everyone has this ability if they are specifically taught the language. The issue is that for most people this ability comes naturally. Typically no one is dissecting body language to specifically teach it to others because it usually develops through observation and experience. That doesn’t mean it can’t be taught, it simply means it needs to be broken down and taught to someone on the spectrum in a logical step-by-step manner. For instance, I am terrible at math. Nothing about it comes naturally to me. However, if someone sits down with me and teachers me step-by-step how to work out specific problems I can get enough skills to do everything I need to do in my life that involves math. No one labels me as “special needs” because of my lack of ability in this area. I can learn enough math to get by and my clients can learn enough social skills to get by in life as well.

As a Certified Autism Specialist, what are the most effective ways to help children or adults who have difficulties with social communication (both nonverbal and verbal)?

I have a specific method that I implement with my clients to teach them these skills step-by-step. I break down the situations in their lives and teach them how to accomplish them in a highly logical manner. The best advice I can give to parents is to stop expecting things out of their children if they aren’t explaining them in a highly logical step-by-step manner. For example, if a parent is telling a child “You need to go out and make more friends.” That is not helpful. It is stressful for the child and stressful for the parent. Learn to break down everything you do socially and then teach it to your child in incremental steps. This is the only way it can be learned. Parents needs to educate themselves on how their child’s mind works so that they can begin to communicate at their basic level. Once parent and child are communicating on a basic level a strong foundation is formed where you can then add more advanced communication techniques to their repertoire. Start small and big goals will be achieved later.

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