A friend of mine recently told me that she and her partner hug several times a day for a whole 20 seconds – and that’s not even while they are watching TV or checking their phones over each other’s shoulders.
OK, they’ve only been together for a short time – but 20 seconds? Several times a day? It sounds lovely but it got me thinking about how long most people hug for – and why it might matter.
I spoke to psychotherapist Toby Ingham who told me that embracing each other plays an important part in making, repairing and strengthening connections between us. He says, ‘When we are hugged we feel close and intimate, creating a feeling of warmth. There are a lot of people who get very few hugs and miss the feeling of being held.’
As well as psychological benefits to hugging, there are many physiological effects, too. Toby says, ‘Our stress and anxiety levels settle down so we start to feel good about ourselves. Other good things follow a hug: our moods tend to lift, we sleep better, we feel less depressed and get on better with our children and partners.’ This is because hugging has been found to increase our levels of oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’, which, thanks to its warm, fuzzy, nurturing effect, is responsible for us bonding with others. It also appears to help reduce the impact of stress and even lower blood pressure.
The average hug, according to research on Olympic athletes embracing after they have competed, lasts for three seconds. There’s a chance that athletes aren’t typical (or are just too sweaty to get close for too long) but, in fact, cross-cultural studies point to a ‘three second rule’ which shows that most gestures – from the babbling of infants to goodbye waves – usually last for around three seconds, too.
But to reap all the benefits of a hug, research suggests that it should last 20 seconds. One study at the University of North Carolina recruited 59 women aged between 20 and 49 who had been living with a spouse or monogamous partner for at least six months. They found that the women who received more hugs from their partners usually had higher oxytocin levels during all phases of the experiment, including the warm-contact phase where they had a 20-second hug with their partner, as well as while participating in a stressful task.
Researchers concluded that the increase in oxytocin and the associated decrease in stress hormones such as cortisol may be the link between hugging and lowering blood pressure. The vagus nerve provides a connection between receptors in the skin and the brain, including oxytocin receptors.
Cuddling your dog or cat can have a similar calming, soothing and reassuring effect on you and the animals themselves – studies on rats have shown that their oxytocin rises and blood pressure falls when their bellies are stroked.
Got no one special you want to hug? Just hire a professional – that’s right, you can get your hit of feel-good oxytocin from a professional hugger (also known as a cuddle therapist).
be 17 seconds too long, try shorter hugs more often. This is what I have been trying with my husband Michael and the more we practise, the closer we are getting to that 20-second rule.
For more information, go to tobyingham.com
Why full-fat is fabulous
I often surprise my patients by suggesting that they eat full-fat live yoghurt rather than the low-fat options, as these supposedly ‘healthier’ versions tend to contain starchy thickeners and more sugar.
I was astonished by recent research in the medical journal BMJ that looked into the nutrient content of our supermarket yoghurts and found that ‘the sugar content of most types of yoghurt is well above the recommended threshold. And organic varieties, often viewed as healthier options, contain some of the highest average sugar content, at 13.1g per 100g.’ To be classed as low-sugar, products should meet the 5g per 100g threshold.
The good news is that full-fat Greek-style yoghurt has a clean bill of health; it is usually low in sugar and has no significant links to heart disease or stroke, and is thought to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Your gut bacteria will love it, too.
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