When Hugs are in Short Supply

Why are hugs so important?

Interestingly it’s not the hug that’s important but what it does to us that matters! Physical touch and stimulation of the skin releases a chemical in our brain called oxytocin, and it’s this which we need to keep well stocked. Why? Well because it’s been known to:

  • Reduce stress
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Increase feelings of attachment
  • Increase feelings of trust
  • Increase feelings of bonding

When is our oxytocin level higher and lower?

Ordinarily oxytocin is released into our blood stream in social situations, the early stages of relationships (commonly the first 6 months), when we have sex, when women breast feed, when we hug and when our skin is stimulated.

Therefore people who are living alone, are single, who don’t have children, who have very few social interactions and who have limited physical contact, are likely to have much lower levels of oxytocin. When our levels are low we feel more stressed and anxious, and less trusting and connected.

What should we do if we think our oxytocin levels might be too low?

The optimal solution to decreased oxytocin, is to increase your amount of human connection. The more you can interact and (consentingly) touch other people, the higher your oxytocin levels will rise, but I recognise that’s not always possible. So this post is written for people who can’t or don’t interact with others.

The great news is that there are actually a number of ways to increase your oxytocin levels without the need for another person to be involved.

NOTE: You’ll need to engage in these activities for at least 20 seconds in order to trigger the release of the oxytocin, and the longer you continue, the nicer you’ll feel.

1. Hug or Touch an Animal

The next best thing to a person is an animal (in this instance). Animals are living, breathing and emotionally interactive beings that can reciprocate  feelings that you share with them. They are also highly tactile in that their soft fur, slobbery tongue, scratchy claws etc all induce strong physical sensations. I’m thinking traditional domestic mammals here; anything from a hamster through to a horse.

  • Nurturing a pet and making direct contact with it (holding, stroking or hugging it) will release oxytocin.
  • If you don’t have a pet, you can ask someone close to you if you can borrow one of theirs for a few hours.
  • If you don’t have access to a domestic animal, you can take a walk in the countryside and find a horse who’s head pops over a gate.
  • You can visit your local petting farm.

Please note that the animal needs to be respected too and just because you are in the mood to touch them, doesn’t mean they’re in the mood to be touched. Ideally gently encourage them to come to you or wait until they do so of their own accord. Never confine an animal to your affections if it’s not happy to be there because it might become aggressive. Remember also that their desire not to be touched has no correlation to you not being a nice person; animals sometimes can just be fussy.

2. Hug a Tree

In the interest of writing an article with genuine advice, I want to let you know that for ‘research purposes’ I tried this out before deciding to include it and my findings surprised me:

Tree one was big with really smooth bark, it completely filled my arms when I hugged it and to give you some context, it was about 15m tall. Initially I couldn’t get over how solid it felt. Having never hugged a tree before I was taken aback by how unbelievably grounding it felt. Simultaneously I had thoughts in my head like “any minute now someone is going to pass comment, I’m hugging a tree”, which not only amused me but made me laugh. As a side note laughter releases endorphins and dopamine. Endorphins are good for us because they reduce any sensations of pain and stress. Dopamine is good for us because it makes us feel happier and more motivated.

Tree two was probably a 1/3 of the diameter of tree one, had heavily textured bark and was leant at a 60 degree angle. The moment I wrapped my arms around it, I was aware that it felt old, like really old! I instantly felt like it needed love and oddly I felt able to give it something warm and caring from within me. I get how strange that might sound but until you’ve hugged a tree, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking I’ve lost the plot with this. The good news is that once again I found myself smiling a lot, my awareness of how I must have looked was amusing. Further good news is that smiling releases serotonin, which is essentially an anti-depressant. Serotonin is a mood regulator that improves sleep, digestion and memory.

What I’d like to conclude here is that tree hugging offers far more than I’d first realised. The benefits are that trees are available for hugs all year round and can be found in remote and isolated places, so you can hug them in private if you find the idea a bit embarrassing. Like animals, they are alive and therefore there is a nature-based connection which is really peaceful.

3. Hug yourself

Find a cosy spot, cross your arms in front of you and then hold onto your shoulders / arms (I’d probably close my eyes at this point too). Essentially hold yourself in an embrace. I think this feels soothing and calming but it’s more effective after 40 seconds rather than 20. As you tune into your own breathing and heartbeat you begin to feel like you are having a real hug, but it takes a few moments to disconnect from the fact that it’s you that you’re hugging.

4. Hug your Knees

Okay, so you need to be reasonably flexible to do this; yoga-goers this one’s for you. Sit somewhere comfortable, like on the sofa or the bed, pull your knees up to your chest and wrap your arms around the front of your legs. Firstly you’ll feel a sense of immediate security and secondly your breathing will begin to slow-down.
Knee hugging doesn’t necessarily give you a sense of closeness but its definitely calming.

5. Hug a Pillow or a Cushion

Personally I think there are three important factors when it comes to this one; size, texture and squidginess!
A big, soft cushion that’s ultra squishy will give you an immediately restful sensation. The density of the pillow will in some way help to absorb your sense of stress and calm any unwanted feelings.

6. Hug a Cuddly Toy

You’re never too old for a teddy and there’s something rather nurturing about buying one for yourself as an adult. An often rare moment when you award yourself a childhood experience from your adult standpoint, demonstrating that you can love and care for yourself if you so choose.
Whether you dig ‘Hamish’ out of the loft or flick over to Amazon after you’ve finished reading this article and put a Jellycat in your basket, wrapping your arms around a soft toy can elicit special feelings.

Nostalgia, security, comfort and safety are feelings we might draw upon when we nestle into a little fluffy stuffed animal.

6. Hug a Hot Water Bottle

Hot things like a water bottle or a mug of tea provide our skin with a sensation we haven’t discussed yet. The part of our brain activated by heat is called the insula which prompts our emotional warmth and memory. Therefore when we combine a release of oxytocin (generated by stimulating our skin) with the happy feelings activated by warmth, we get a double whammy of feel-good feelings. So if you use a hot water bottle, tucked inside a fluffy cover, you’ll produce an extra level of huggy goodness.

7. Hug a Warm, Scented, Rice or Wheat Bag

If you thought that the sixth entry on this list was impressive for it’s dual benefits then this one is even better. The third component here is scent, which activates our central nervous system along with memory, thoughts and emotions. So you already have the oxytocin because the bag is soft to touch, the sense of emotional warmth activated by the heat, and now, the pleasant associations of the smell.

Scents are two-fold in their function. Firstly they’ll trigger the brain to recall memories associated to the smell and secondly they’ll activate further parts of your brain, unique to the individual smell. Lavender for example, is the most common scent used in heated wheat bags, because it’s known to be both a mood stabiliser and a sedative, which calms you.

The bags can be scented differently and each scent has a different effect on the brain, which therefore trigger different feelings. If these are smells you remember from your past, you’ll also elicit old feelings associated to your memories, so pick your fragrance wisely.

  • Lemon will make you feel more alert and energised.
  • Jasmine will reduce feelings of physical pain, make you feel calmer and yet more alert.
  • Vanilla will reduce feelings of anxiety and depression whilst increasing a sense of feeling calm.
  • Rosemary will make you feel more alert and improve your memory.

8. Hug Something that Belongs to Someone Else.

Most of us have probably had a moment at some point in our life when we’ve sniffed an ex’s T. Shirt (mid break-up), because guess what, it makes us feel closer to them. This is because of all of the brain activity that we are setting off; memories, positive connection, wellness and a sense of being soothed. But do we ever do this on a regular day or only when we’ve lost something? If you live alone but have close connections with other people, have you ever considered asking them if you can borrow an item of their clothing? Not because you want to cry into it when they’re not around but because cosying up to it will help you to feel better connected.

9. Stimulate your Skin

The key take-away from this blog post is that by stimulating your skin, you’ll activate the part of your brain that responds to being hugged. Therefore any form of self-massage, exfoliation, skin brushing or pleasant skin sensation will help you to feel better and more peaceful. There are many different products on the market that provide different sensations so my advice here is to experiment. The feeling of a loofah in the shower is distinctly different from warm pebbles being smoothed over you, which is different again from a nut-shell exfoliation treatment or the tickles of feathers. Your preferences will be individual, as you might find a firm or rough experience far more enjoyable than something soft and delicate. It doesn’t matter what you prefer but to establish what feels best will increase your chances of being able to self-soothe.

10. Hug the Duvet

By this point in my research, logic would now lead me to believe that the reason it feels so good to wrap ourselves up and snuggle into the duvet is because it warmly engulfs almost all of our skin at once. Therefore we’re getting a maximum dose of oxytocin or rather a ‘full body hug’. Perhaps this is a large part of the reason that people with depression so often feel the desire to remain in bed, it’s the one place they get to consistently feel better.

In Closing

It’s clear that hugging a person is effective because it provides us with so many of the optimal sensations all in one go, but evidently a lack of people to hug doesn’t need to stand in our way of feeling like we’re connected. This clearly shows we can increase the bond, trust and sense of connection that we have with ourselves. We simply need to activate the appropriate parts of our brain and we’ll soon start to feel a bit better.