Got Hugs? The Healing Power of a Good Embrace

As we celebrate National Hugs Day on January 21, this simple gesture of compassion or celebration is actually a prescription for brain health and caregiver wellness.

Hugging is an intimate gesture to bring two people together. The person receiving the hug gets a silent message from the hugger, “You matter to me, you are not alone, I’m here.” The emotional impact of this small act can make all the difference in the world to a family caregiver who is experiencing sadness, depression, fear and anxiety.

But scientists have established beyond the emotional uplift, there is a positive physical impact as well. When hugged, we receive a jolt of oxytocin – known as the “love or cuddle” hormone. This hormonal surge helps us bond with the person we are hugging. There is a transfer of positive energy from one human to the other and we feel safer and supported.

Taking the science even further, receiving a hug can boost the immune system, calm our body and regulate blood pressure, reduce inflammation, bring balance back to our nervous system and make us more patient. In addition to the oxytocin hormone for a feeling of happiness and bonding, hugs also result in a dopamine release in our brains – the “feel good” hormone – which can relieve stress and tension as well as motiviate us and boost our self-esteem.

In research done in a NICU unit of a hospital, newborns were separated into two groups. The first group was cuddled and held in a warm snuggly embrace a few times a day. The other group was well-nourished and cared for but not held and hugged. After just a few weeks, researchers observed the first group thrived with higher weight gains, cooing noises and better sleep. The second group, which did not get their daily hugs, had lower weights, cried more often, were restless during sleep periods and appeared more agitated.

Essentially, hugs are necessary for our survival. Without them, we are living a slow death. Virginia Satir, American psychologist, advises, “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”

Hugs Protect Our Brains

Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist known as “Dr. Love” for his research into oxytocin and neuro response, prescribes eight hugs a day to receive the adequate amount of oxytocin and other hormonal release that provide a neuroprotective effect for brain health.

In addition to human to human contact, we can receive the same plethora of health benefits from hugging a pet. It is one of the reasons why pet therapy is so powerful and impactful in our senior population even helping to calm agitated or wandering dementia patients.

When I gave the keynote speech at the National Caregiver Expo in Jacksonville, Florida a couple of years ago, I spoke about the healing power of hugs. Spontaneously, the audience turned to each other and gave their fellow audience member a hug. Someone came up on stage to embrace me and I can’t explain the surge of positive emotion and feeling so good that I was there!

The best part of hugging is that it is a non-pharmacological, non-invasive, universal expression of love and care.  And it’s the gift that gives back because we cannot hug someone without getting the same reaction we provide. Hugs are where both parties benefit in the emotional and physical healthy feelings.



How to Give a Good Hug

  1. Hug someone for at least 20 seconds – don’t be wimpy or weak about it – make it a good bear hug to show how much you care.
  2. Provide the “Heart to Heart Hug”: Raise your left arm up to wrap it over the upper right shoulder of your hugging partner, leaving your right arm low to wrap around his or her midsection just below his or her left arm.
  3. Include your pets in your daily prescription of 8 Hugs a Day – all hugs count!



If you are not sure if someone is a hugger, a nice pat on the back or rub on the hand or arm will let you know if you should go for it. If not, the touch is still a nice gesture of support and not invading the recipient’s space.







Watch this video from the Cleveland Clinic on how hugs improve our health


You can read more about hugs, happiness and hygge in Sherri Snelling’s book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebritiy Stories to Help You Prepare to Care.


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