Have you ever heard the saying that you should get at least four hugs a day for good health? Hugs are one of many forms of interpersonal contact that can significantly improve mood and support immune system function. Whether it be your pets, family, or even just a stuffed animal, hugging can induce the release of hormones that make you feel a lot better.
The Neural Pathway of Meaningful Interpersonal Contact
Touch is one of our five sensory systems, and hugging is one of the many ways you can induce a “slow-touch” reaction in the brain. In this sensory pathway, special nerves called c-tactiles process a type of prolonged touch as an emotional response. This type of touch differs from any other random contact with surfaces and is defined by its “gentle” and “skin-temperature” features. It sends emotional signals down the spinal cord and to the brain, where endorphins are then released as a response. These endorphins are the ones that then boost mood.
Oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin are a few such endorphins that are released as responses to this type of contact. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide (slower-acting molecules that create longer sensations) that creates feel-good sensations of trust, emotional bonding, social connection, and decreased fear and anxiety. Dopamine and serotonin are both neurotransmitters (rapidly acting molecules that create brief feelings of pleasure) that help create pleasurable feelings and diminish pain at the moment. Without stress relief through such interpersonal contact, cortisol (steroid) levels can build up in the body, which can then negatively impact breathing, heart rate, immune system function, sleep, and risk of infection. On the other hand, with interpersonal contact, cortisol levels can be controlled to then create significant mental and physical health benefits.
Activities like hugging holding hands can go beyond creating pleasurable emotional responses and also increase feelings of security and belonging. It can decrease activity in neural circuits that are associated with fear and lookout for potential threats. In one experiment where heat-induced pain was applied to the arms of partners, those that were holding hands reported less pain. Interpersonal touch can help one feel a part of a group, blur emotions on an individual level, and create a sense of security in being with others.
Interpersonal Contact Improves Mental Health, Heart Health, and Immunity
Interpersonal touch can also help those who may suffer from more long-term lower-self esteem and depression. In a study series published in Psychological Science, participants with low self-esteem who received a light, one-second touch on the shoulder reported less existential anxiety than those who didn’t. Interpersonal touch can create a sense of optimism, lightening fears about the world around us in the form of something as simple as a palm on one’s shoulder. Even holding a teddy bear, not even another person or a pet, can help one find comfort in contact and increase optimism.
Lowering stress through hugging and other interpersonal interactions can also contribute to improved heart health In an experiment conducted at the University of North Carolina, random women who were allowed to hug for 20 seconds after a brief discussion had lower heart rates and blood pressures after, both of which indicate better heart health in the long term. Activities such as kissing can also reduce cramps and headaches because of how they dilate blood vessels, allowing for blood to flow at a slower, more even rate.
Alongside the benefits to the cardiovascular system, interpersonal contact can also contribute to improved immune system functioning. Decreased stress means the immune system has to work less to cope with the psychological and physical effects of stress on the body, allowing for improved immune system health for fighting future infections as well.
This need for interpersonal interactions does not just develop over time as we become more stressed or prone to feeling low-esteem. Humans have a biological need for contact that begins at birth itself. When babies are born, mothers are recommended to hold them in their arms to soothe them. Interpersonal contact provides a calming effect on the babies and helps them form early emotional bonds with their mothers as well. Even babies born prematurely that are typically kept in the NICU for a few weeks are held by their mothers a few times a day as recommended by doctors to increase emotional bonding.
Touch Starvation Occurs when Interpersonal Interactions are Limited
Indeed interpersonal touch is such a necessity in our lives that people can even suffer from “touch starvation”, a common phenomenon during the pandemic especially. Many of us don’t realize the value of something as simple as hugging a friend until it is gone, then feeling a loss that is sometimes not even recognizable. As many people felt isolated from physical contact with family and friends, stress levels could have been directly impacted. I know that my personal isolation from friends and family significantly hurt my mood during the pandemic and many of my peers also felt this way, the lack of interpersonal contact being one of the many causes. Video calls and interactions with pets and siblings helped significantly but I still missed my daily interactions with my peers a lot.
Dr. Professor Asim Shah, a faculty member at Baylor College of Medicine, puts it this way “When someone is [touch] starved, it’s like someone who is starved for food”….Their psyche and their body want to touch someone, but they can’t do it because of the fear associated with”(Texas Medical Center). In this scenario, the fear of “touch” is because of COVID-19 and the way it can spread through physical contact. As we continue to spend a portion of our lives in the pandemic, it becomes important to balance the pros and cons of isolation and then make personal decisions that can support both physical and mental health.
Making an active effort to hug those we can and spend time with those we cannot physically touch during the pandemic in other ways is important. We all need a way to cope with stress and interpersonal interaction or even interaction with pets that can reciprocate affection can help us destress, improve heart health, and fight off infections with a stronger immune system.