The Power of Physical Touch

Oh, hugging. When it starts to get colder outside, doesn’t everyone want to have someone to hug to keep warmer, or snuggle up next to inside? Well, almost everyone.

Some people love it. Some people can’t handle it. For others, it’s okay with select special people in their lives only. Here again, I am referring back to my previous post on making art and expanding upon one of the phrases I thought of after writing the poem published there. And in my Thanksgiving post, I mentioned that I once disliked being hugged, and promised to say more on this topic.

What’s the big deal about hugging? Why does cuddle therapy exist? Why was the hug machine (aka hug box or squeeze machine) invented? Why would two people have a four minute hug? And why do you see people on college campuses or in busy public places holding signs offering free hugs?

Alright, first, here’s a bit of my story. My mom once told me that when I was a young child and got hurt, perhaps running in from outside because I’d scraped my knee, I preferred to hug my stuffed cat, and shied away from her offer to hold me. Usually, however, I was okay with family giving me brief hugs, but beyond that, I was highly uncomfortable with someone I wasn’t close to reaching out for a squeeze. If anyone attempted this, I tensed up with hands stiff at my sides, a nervous soldier at attention. Thankfully I’ve had several turning points since then.

The first I recall was during a church youth camp. We did an activity blindfolded and at the end while I was still wearing my bandanna, one of my leaders hugged me. I was a bit caught off guard, but as she didn’t let me go for several long moments, I eventually raised my arms and hugged her back. I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience, but I didn’t want her to think I didn’t love and appreciate her. I believe after this point I started accepting more hugs and in high school if I’d built enough of a connection to a person emotionally first, I started enjoying being hugged.

When I was around 16, I even started initiating a few hugs. Wow, let me tell you that was a big step. When looking around at couples in school holding each other I thought, “Hmm, that looks nice.” I still very much appreciated my own space. One of my brothers loved to tease me by sitting very close and touching me. He received my invariable response of leaning away and telling him firmly to get out of my bubble.

My mom sometimes made comments like, “How are you ever going to marry if you’re like that?” Cue my best eye roll. It’d be different with someone I loved of course. Why? I realized I was comfortable with being touched by someone and maybe even touching them (I can’t say why that’s harder than the former for me) if we had first formed a deep enough emotional connection. It was very important that that came first. With dating experience later, my thoughts were confirmed. With an increase in emotional intimacy, an increase in physical intimacy was allowable and even desired. But they had to go hand in hand, with emotional intimacy first, or any kind of touching beyond, say, a high five was a no go. I attribute this mostly to my introversion, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

But why hug? Hugging for at least 20 seconds releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone. Hugging helps build trust, connection, calm fear, keep you healthier, even lower blood pressure! We can communicate through touch in ways we can’t with words. Even more good reasons to hug are expanded upon here: Benefits of Hugging. It can just feel really good!

I’m more comfortable now if a hugger I don’t know well reaches out. I’ll accept it, and if the occasion feels right, I’ll initiate a hug even to someone who’s mostly a stranger if we’ve built a little bit of rapport with a conversation. I might even reach out automatically at the sight of a friend to say without words, “I’m so happy to see you” or “I just adore you, my friend”. Although I do try to be sensitive to those I realize might be as I once was for various different reasons. This could be due to high introversion (here’s an excellent post about one introvert’s experience that is similar to mine: Please, Don’t Touch the Introvert), or hypersensitivity, which may occur in individuals with autism spectrum disorder, or in fewer cases, an actual fear of touch or being touched called haphephobia (you can read about it here: Fear of Touch).

So what of people who don’t enjoy being hugged? Or those who want it but are starved for it? Some have tried to address this. Temple Grandin, an American professor with autism, invented the hug machine while in college. Her inspiration was the cattle squeeze box. Hypersensitive individuals can be calmed by using a hug machine. Travis Sigley, the founder of cuddle therapy, discusses this fairly recent revolution to help individuals through nonsexual touch here: Cuddle Therapy

That can be expensive, and before cuddle therapy came around, an Australian known as Juan Mann started the free hug campaign, with a similar goal to help people who lack connection in their lives. The power of physical touch is real but in today’s world it can be complicated. I recall kindergarten children who reached for my hand during an internship at a Boys & Girls Club, but I wasn’t allowed to hold their hands. I had to lift my fingers up so we were still touching but not too much. And goodness, if any children needed the benefits of holding hands, which are similar to what you’ll find about hugging, it was those children.

Last year, the New York Times wrote about an issue of fear with men specifically in using nonsexual touch, how that was viewed differently in Lincoln’s day, and how in the US cultural trends have diminished the acceptableness of it: Gender and Cultural Norms Around Touch. The tintypes of male friends in the 19th century which the article links to seem to show that “bromance” is nothing new. There’s also a problem in the UK, as you can read about here: No Hugging in the UK

Gratefully there are some who have taken notice on this issue. Some have even conducted some fun social experiments. Glamour magazine asked people to participate in a four minute hug with a partner. It’s adorable. I love it, but the lack of a single pair of two heterosexual guys in this video does stick out to me.

Maybe cultural norms won’t change anytime soon. Even though it seems touch is needed more than ever. Especially during the holidays, many need and want to feel they are cared for. It should be a joyous time, and a few extra hugs a day can make it less stressful! So go ahead and hug someone who could use it, or, if they’re not okay with that, show your affection in another more suitable way for the individual. And if you haven’t yet, read about giving a heart-to-heart (or left to left) hug and try it out! You might be surprised about how different it feels. Happy holiday hugging!











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