For nearly two years the thought of hugging a friend or relative, let alone a complete stranger, was unthinkable. COVID-19 thwarted the global network of willing and able huggers. Some stalwart huggers created ‘hugging suits’ out of shower curtains so they could have physical contact with elderly relatives. The 36th anniversary of National Hugging Day, 21st January 2022, could see an upsurge of huggers everywhere, without the need to be draped in moisture-repellent material!

Founder and creator of National Hugging Day (NHD), Kevin Zaborney, started NHD when he noticed that people were generally low in spirits between the Christmas celebrations and Valentine’s Day. He felt that the American population were reluctant and embarrassed to hug in public and took it upon himself to encourage unrestricted displays of affection through hugging. Zaborney says:

“National Hugging Day™ is a different form of sharing. We’ve got more than our quota of whiners and far too few huggers these days. Most of us have a little person inside who needs human contact in this stainless steel, computerised society where we are kept at arms length.”

If you enjoy giving or receiving hugs, then NHD is a perfect day for you to display your skills.  

The power of hugs.

Medicinenet provides a plethora of perfect reasons to hug, clinch, squeeze and embrace your nearest and dearest. Dopamine – the reward and pleasure neurotransmitter – is activated during the hugging process, along with oxytocin – the love hormone – which aids with supporting heart health, lowering blood pressure and reducing stress. Our skin is inhabited by Pacinian corpuscles, which are activated when pressure is applied to the body.  This, in turn, notifies the brain (through the Vagus Nerve), which helps to reduce blood pressure and increase better heart health.

Virginia Satir, a well-respected and admired family therapist once said:

“We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”

Self-hugs are important too.

Twelve hugs are a tall order, particularly during a pandemic, so why not practise a bit of self-hugging?  The thought of a self-hug may bring back memories of a distant childhood; teasing a sibling whilst kissing their sweetheart on the front porch!  Sherry Duquet, however, is a renowned, self-confessed, hugger, author and yoga instructor. She provides a ‘How To Self-Hug’ guide on her website with an accompanying video that demonstrates, in just over one minute, how to effectively self-hug. Duquet says: 

“One thing we can do as we sit with the uncertainty and all the emotions is to treat ourselves with kindness and love and a full hug. Not a half hug or a double pat on the back hug, but a real, full-on hug from yourself.”

Including a self-hug as part of your daily routine may help to increase self-esteem and confidence, as well as boosting your oxytocin!

Lean into the optimum-timed hug.

Hugging family and close friends is, for many, a natural and frequent occurrence. Arms open wide, bringing two people together for a few seconds is universal behaviour. However, there’s science behind a hug. Dueren, et al carried out a series of studies into the science behind a hug. They discovered that one-second hugs were rated as less pleasant and less under control than five or ten-second hugs.  They also noted that duration matters more than arm crossing style for hug pleasure.

Hugging for health.

In a study of Cardiovascular Reactivity, investigations into the relationship between brief, warm, social and physical contact between a cohabitating couple and their levels of blood pressure suggested that:

“Affectionate relationships with a supportive partner may contribute to lower reactivity to stressful life events and may partially mediate the benefit of marital support on better cardiovascular health.”

Further research in 2014 monitored 404 adults who were all infected with the common cold.  The test subjects who received more hugs and social support displayed less negative symptoms and recovered more quickly than their peers.

Deliberate hugging.

Jenny’s husband, Mark, had a near-fatal heart attack a few years ago due to stress-related work problems. She read about how hugging can aid good heart health and decided to put it to the test:

“Every night, when Mark arrives home from work we hug for a minimum of sixty seconds. I can, actively, feel the stress releasing from his body. The tension in his shoulders drops and he lets out a big sigh. It’s become part of our daily routine and although I started deliberate hugging for Mark, I can feel the benefits too.”

The National Hugging Day website provides a plethora of suggestions for offering the perfect hug!

  • The Back to Front Hug is the perfect way to give support and affection to someone, even if they are busy carrying out a task like the washing up! Receiving a Back to Front Hug shows that you have someone who is always there for you and is a way of expressing love and affection for that person irrespective of what is received in return. 
  • The Bear Hug is one of the hugs that we all consider to be the strongest. By squeezing your hugging partner gently, you can instantly give them reassurance and affection. But people tend to use Bear Hugs when they are excited or when they want to display strong affection. Remember, the best Bear Hugs require moderate squeezing not suffocating!
  • The Cheek Hug on the other hand is the complete opposite. We use the Cheek Hug when we need to comfort someone or show affection, but this type of hug also allows us to keep our distance at the same time. The Cheek Hug may be used by anyone – elderly people who may not be able to hug tightly, people who are seated, colleagues, acquaintances and even friends and family.
  • The Side to Side Hug is a common sight we all see almost everyday. Most of us have all strolled down the road locked in a Side to Side Hug with someone. This casual hug allows us to demonstrate our affection for one another without being too intimate. It is also a way of conveniently hugging whilst carrying out other tasks such as walking, sitting down next to each other or standing in a queue, for example.
  • The Heart Centred Hug is one we all enjoy. A slow, intimate and well-needed Heart Hug can lift anyone’s spirits and is the perfect way to show close family, friends and partners how much you care!

In essence, a hug has complex connotations. It has healing properties, raises self-esteem, and activates oxytocin and dopamine. The benefits of hugging are immeasurable and beneficial to both hugger and ‘huggee’. So, try to hug more frequently (with explicit permission, of course) and enjoy the process.  

Happy Hug Day!

Written by Beverley Nolker, Education Development Officer for Psychiatry-UK and the HLP-U Clinics.