Deeper Than a Hug

Hug. Just saying the word sounds like a happy sigh, brings about a ticklish feeling deep inside your chest, and lifts a smile on your face. The gesture itself—one person encircling their arms around another and squeezing—is that feeling amplified. It suggests warmth, comfort, protection, and love. It’s a shot of oxytocin straight to your system. It’s reassurance that everything will be alright, even when you’re at your lowest point or wit’s end. It’s not that way for everyone, however. Let’s start with the huggers.

Good news! Hugging for college students is now more accessible than ever. “Those who are accustomed to hugs and enjoy them are likely to hug their new friends at college,” says Miami-based psychologist Dr. Sherrie Lewis-Thomas. She adds that this is because college campuses tend to have more sexual freedom, which inevitably leads to positive physical contact as a whole to be welcomed amongst peers.

Take “Free Hug” events, for example. Although Lewis-Thomas says that hugging a stranger can often create feelings of anxiety over anything else, imagine the person in your life who started hugging you the day after meeting them. It can be a roommate or friend you’ve developed a strong bond with. For those of you who love to hug, it brings comfort and boosts your mood. However, it is important to be aware of those who would not be as appreciative.

Not everyone is into hugs.

Lewis-Thomas says that hugs won’t always be welcomed, but on the contrary, could be “anxiety-provoking and unbearable” for some. “A traumatized individual or autistic individual may struggle with physical contact,” she says. Therefore, it is crucial to be mindful that the person you want to hug consents to it beforehand. Not everyone reacts to touch in the same way, and it is important to place the other person into consideration since they are just as involved in the interaction.

If you are an individual who does not enjoy hugs, a pet or comfort animal can be a more relaxing and rewarding alternative. “The petting of the animal is calming for many people,” says Lewis-Thomas, “Most pets also have a tendency to provide unconditional love, obedience, and loyalty.” These traits could be much more beneficial to individuals who want to engage in physical contact that is less confrontational but who still need security and a form of assurance.

Finally, there are also those who could use a hug, but may be afraid to reach out.

Harry Harlow’s “Monkey Love” experiments showed motherless baby rhesus monkeys who valued physical comfort over food. The baby monkey would come into contact with either a “mother” made of wire with a bottle of milk attached, or a terry cloth-covered “mother” that provided no food. Most of the time, the baby monkey would spend time cuddling the mother covered in cloth over the wire mother with food, especially when they underwent moments of distress. Perhaps, the experiment in itself wasn’t the most ethical and should have taken into account the feelings of all sentient creatures. However, the results are still relevant, showing that individuals will value comfort even over things that contribute to basic survival.

The same applies to people; when one undergoes moments of stress or is depressed, physical contact can do wonders to improve one’s emotional state. “There are even some studies that have shown that hugs have calmed aggression, expansiveness, and other emotional difficulties,” says Lewis-Thomas. Once again, it may be better to receive a hug from someone you feel close to than from a stranger. If you are a friend to someone who is going through a rough time, ask them if they need a hug. Even if they say no, it is better to have asked than to leave them without that form of emotional support.

If you’re not into physical contact from others or no one else is around, and you need some comfort, don’t hesitate to give yourself a hug. In the end, caring about your own emotional well-being should be your utmost priority. Regardless, the same feelings of stress relief and contentment arise and make you feel better, especially when they come from the person who will always be there for you… you.

Art Credit: Taylor Roberts