Hugging is good for your physical and emotional health
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Perhaps I’m too English but one aspect of the pandemic which came as a relief was avoiding the rather awkward moment when I’m unsure whether to give someone a hug.
I don’t want to appear staid and withdrawn but whenever I read about the #metoo movement and dodgy groping, I’m terrified I’ll be misinterpreted.
Neither of my parents were 'touchy-feely' people.
My father spent most of his childhood in boarding schools while his father worked in China.
To the middle class 1930s generation, hugging and kissing friends and relatives was a bit too French.
AA Milne, who wrote the Winnie the Pooh books, lived a typical middle-class life with the employed nanny carrying out most of the childcare.
Are the beautifully written children’s books an attempt to be the cuddly father which was not possible in pre-war middle-class England?
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And now we have some research carried out before the pandemic which showed that it is positively helpful to be more touchy-feely.
So, should I hug everybody when restrictions end?
A paper from Goldsmith’s University in London looked at how people felt about hugs.
In one study they asked 48 women to carry out a series of hugs of different lengths with the researchers and score them out of 100.
A one-second squeeze scored and average of 50 but for ten seconds, it increased to 70.
After all the handwashing advice, we know that we can measure ten seconds by singing ‘Happy Birthday’ once.
This study did not involve hugs between men and women which might have different dynamics.
The longer the hug the better although there is no research looking into hugs lasting longer than ten seconds.
In another study, they did look at mixed-sex hugging.
Women are more likely to hug around the waist and men to cross their arms around each other.
It was also found that women scored hugs from either sex higher than men.
But does this research have any bearing on our mental or physical health?
Hugging lowers the stress hormone cortisol. It also increases the hormone oxytocin.
Hugging stimulates the release of endorphins in the brain, the natural 'morphine'.
It might also improve our immune response to infections well as lower the blood pressure and reduce the heart rate.
The effect on blood pressure was shown in a study when people were split into two groups with their partners.
In one group they held hands for ten minutes followed by a 20-second hug.
The other group just sat together in silence for ten minutes and then 20 seconds.
The group who were allowed to hold hands and then hug had a greater reduction in blood pressure and heart rate. Maybe hugging is good for the heart.
As Torquay United score a goal - here’s hoping - players hug each other but is it the goal which reduces blood pressure rather than the hug?
Hugging is also a sign of emotional support.
If someone bursts into tears putting an arm around them is helpful. It shows you’re there.
As a GP, if someone started crying I did occasionally put an arm around them but was very careful hoping it would not be misinterpreted.
There is also a generational difference.
Younger people seem far more relaxed about hugging and kissing friends and family than us geriatrics.
But then I have less of a problem with hugging than my parent’s generation.
The last 18 months has been difficult with grandparents desperate to give their grandchildren a hug.
Watching them online can never be the same as physical contact.
And seeing them but keeping two metres apart is not easy. Very young children may not understand.
Let’s hope that later this year we will be able to meet again and, most importantly, give each other a big hug in 2022.