Happy New Year! Now Go Hug Someone You Care About.

December 31, 2017

By Amy Castoro

In interviews with members of the same family, a sibling mentioned, “We are not ‘huggy’ . . . I don’t remember the last time I got a hug from Dad.  We’re not big communicators.  Learning to talk about feelings will be stressful because we just don’t know how.”   A daughter-in-law said, “I wouldn’t mind more hugs. It would be nice to hug someone and say, for example, ‘Have a safe trip.’”  The youngest in the family told me, “Hugs are for big events like when you get married.”


“I had an excellent childhood in many ways filled with privilege, discipline, and support,” the eldest daughter shared as we sat in the mahogany paneled family room on large comfortable sofas.  She talked about all of the great times the family had together playing games, enjoying family dinners, and the forbidden parties she had in that very room with her friends. 


And at the end of the interview, she asked me to make sure to get rid of any evidence of tissues so no one in the family would know she had been crying.  “In this family, we just don’t cry.”


Link Between Trust And Hugging . . .  Better Health

A segment on NPR’s “A Morning Edition” talked about the link between building trust and hugging. In the segment, Matt Hertenstein, an experimental psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana, explained that when we put our arms around someone and invite them into our space, we send messages of acceptance, belonging, and love. He went on to say that hugging also results in a decrease of the stress hormone cortisol.  This results in lower blood pressure, increased immune defenses, and lower levels of anxiety.


Another study, led by Sheldon Cohen from Carnegie Mellon University, showed that healthy adults who got hugs were less likely to come down with a cold. "We know that people experiencing ongoing conflicts with others are less able to fight off cold viruses.  We also know that people who report having social support are partly protected from the effects of stress on psychological states, such as depression and anxiety." 


The health benefits on a chemical level are clearly indicated through science.  The reduction in cortisol along with an increase in the pleasure hormone of dopamine as well as oxytocin, a hormone that promotes feelings of devotion, trust and bonding, are scientifically evident. 


In the age of technology, many of us experience these chemical reactions on our own, at the cost of building trust with others. For example, every time we get a "like" on our Instagram or someone tags us in a photo, dopamine is released and the need for interpersonal connection is reduced. 


There is a reason high-performing athletic teams, happily married couples, and newborns are embraced.  At The Williams Group, we have the families we work with practice hugging at family meetings. For many families who are learning how to be more emotionally expressive, hugging is the quickest way to say something without actually saying it. 


This New Year’s Eve, give the gift of hugs and let the dopamine and oxytocin flow!