“The best gift you can give is a hug: one size fits all and no one ever minds if you return it.”
- Marge Piercy
Why did the police officer need a hug?
The question may sound like a joke, but it's not. Hugs are serious business. In fact, they may even save an officer's life.
Hugs can be given or received in many different ways. You might hug a friend or family member as a greeting. Your partner or child might hug you after a long day on the job. If you are feeling affectionate or sad, you might want a hug, or perhaps someone you love needs one. Take a moment to think about yesterday's events. Who did you hug? How many times? For how long? Was it one hug? Four? None? What if I told you that the average hug only lasts three seconds? It's true! Three seconds is not long enough for our brains. We will explore some of the scientific research behind hugs and learn why hugs, especially eight-second hugs, are so beneficial.
Listening to calming music, taking walks in nature, and meditating are all well-known ways to improve mental health, but have you ever heard of getting eight hugs a day for eight seconds? Hugs can be a legitimate method of regulating emotions. Our brains release a chemical that regulates our emotions when we connect with another human being through physical touch. It is called oxytocin. Studies have shown that oxytocin reduces stress and anxiety, improves relationships, and increases happiness.
Our brains are desperate for oxytocin and its benefits. Just look at the research. In one study, an increase in oxytocin was associated with a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure. It was also found that people who received frequent hugs were less susceptible to cardiovascular disease (Light, Grewen, & Amico, 2005). Some studies have linked hugs and oxytocin release to physical pain relief, as well as diminished feelings of sadness, loneliness, and anxiety (Denison, 2004)(Tabatabaee et al., 2016). One study even examined the impact of oxytocin on fear and self-esteem, and found that hugging reduced fear.
While these are just a few studies, the evidence that hugging is good for our health is growing rapidly.
Often, we focus on fixing the consequences of what we have endured when we talk about treating our brains. Psychology calls this intervention. Something has happened and we need to come in and fix it so that we can move on. However, keeping our brains healthy has another side. It is called prevention. To prevent psychological disorders, we must make daily, consistent efforts so that we can feel emotionally stable, regulated, and ready to handle the stresses of our jobs, relationships, and environments. If we do not engage in daily prevention efforts, we shouldn't be surprised when we suddenly feel overwhelmed, emotional, or shut down. Our brains often resort to ancient defense mechanisms as a method of self-preservation that do not function well in today's world. We have to actively build emotional resilience, tolerance, and adjust our reactions to triggers.
In a study involving hugging, almost 200 people (partners in couples living together) were given the very stressful task of public speaking. Prior to the task, half the group received a 20-second hug from their partner, while the other half rested quietly on their own. In the hugging group, both men and women showed lower cortisol levels after being hugged for 20 seconds by a supportive partner. Cortisol levels have been associated with hugs in other studies as well. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22071630/
Do first responders and officers face stress in their jobs? You bet! It is estimated that one in three first responders develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during their careers, compared to one in five in the general population. Firefighters, police officers, and first responders experience a higher rate of depression, PTSD, and suicide ideation than the general population. Would daily hugs help them cope with stress and trauma? Just by introducing hugs into their day, our first responders will see lifelong benefits and impacts on their mental health.
Through my doctoral studies, I have learned that physical touch, specifically hugs, can promote and maintain emotional stability. Our study asked university students to receive eight hugs a day for eight seconds. We then measured their depression and anxiety indexes before and after the study. We found that eight hugs a day for eight seconds reduced depression and anxiety scores.
Yes, eight hugs might seem like a lot, and after about four seconds, you and the other person might feel awkward. That is okay. It is usually awkward to start something new. Think about it. We're asking for 64 seconds of your day. That's just about one minute. Think of all the things in your day that you spend time on. Can you spare one minute for your brain? Can you endure one minute of awkward hugs if it means your brain will be better off?
Research suggests that the length of our hugs matters more than the number of hugs we have. Does eight hugs a day sound challenging to do? So, start with four and work your way up to 8. What is essential to remember is that some hugs are much more beneficial than no hugs at all.
Your brain is desperate for oxytocin. So, try it. Get eight eight-second hugs today. Notice how your mood changes. Notice how it calms you. Try it with your family. See what effect it has on them.