A message of affection: Hugging is life!

Hugging is beneficial for health; its lack causes metabolic and behavioral alterations. When a person is in a problematic situation, empathy is the best antidote.

A message of affection: Hugging is life!
A hug means to be alive. Photo by Joseph Pearson / Unsplash

Human beings without affective contact have a higher risk of getting sick, even dying; however, some patients who are treated in an affectionate way recover faster, hence hugging is as necessary as sleeping, eating, and hydrating, said Alicia Castillo Martinez, professor of Functional Neuroanatomy at the Faculty of Medicine (FM) of the UNAM, Alicia Castillo Martinez.

The pandemic has generated "a vacuum of contact" that it would be good to cover with the people we know and are close to, but with adequate protection. Despite COVID-19, we should seek this approach, because it also helps us to secrete functional hormones such as vasopressin (more in men) and oxytocin (more in women), associated with "a state of relaxation and to be able to create bonds".

Meanwhile, Herminia Pasantes Ordóñez, emeritus researcher at the Institute of Cellular Physiology of the UNAM, explained that friendship sets in motion a circle of virtue related to a molecule called oxytocin that is released in the brain, which is related to attachment, trust, and fidelity.

It happens when someone, for example, a friend, listens to us and says affectionate words that comfort us; that is when there is affection and reciprocity. It also arises when we receive a hug, they take us by the hand or give us a caress that is not necessarily related to sex, but to the empathy that characterizes friendship.

We like that feeling of well-being from having our friend or long-time partner, who gives us that confidence. When a person is in a problematic situation with stress, feels anxious, angry, or sad, the best natural physiological antidote is empathy. When chatting with a friend, the brain releases oxytocin that counteracts the discomfort. Therefore, we seek out that person we trust to make us feel better.

There are other substances in the brain that arise from this affective relationship, such as dopamine (responsible for transmitting pleasant and relaxing sensations) and serotonin (known as the happiness hormone). "A friend listens to you, understands you, and encourages you, as well as gives you a hug, pats you on the back, or a kiss and thus we manage to release oxytocin," highlighted Pasantes Ordóñez.

Restoring stability

No hug solves a problem, but it can be the beginning of "returning to stability". It helps to reduce worry and fear to become active in conflict resolution. It can even be an element that supports our creativity. The virtual type, in vogue even before the pandemic, has nowhere near the effect of the physical. However, if there is no other option, this contact at least activates the cognitive aspect, "the coldest part of the bond". So far, there is nothing in the virtual world that gives us the benefits of a hug in person.

Those who were not sufficiently hugged as children present alterations at the neurophysiological level (in the dopaminergic systems, including the reward system), which cause affective and psychosocial malfunctioning, preventing them from "generating healthy bonds" in adult life. The lack of this affective action causes metabolic and behavioral modifications; depriving oneself of it has adverse effects on health.

Present in human beings from the time they are newborns (even the amniotic fluid is a form of contact with the fetus), hugging is fundamental in their biological, psychological, and social development. The lack of hugs in children withdrawn early from their mother or with a limited relationship with her affects the expression of important genes, which causes variations in the "growth pathways", causing, for example, failures in memory.

In low-income children, with limited growth conditions, "there is a difference in their retention capacity", compared to those who have been in greater contact with their mother. Children who receive few hugs from adults also show motor hyperactivity. They find it difficult to control their movements. Although it does not alter their functionality too much, it is visible and is exacerbated under stress.

A message of affection

Affective contact (from family, friends, loved ones) indirectly supports or facilitates the regeneration of our cells. Moreover, it is comforting for adults because there is a direct relationship between the "hug ratio" and three key psychological variables for a good life: feeling accepted, loved, and recognized. A hug to a child is a message of acceptance, affection, and recognition, vital for them to build physically, emotionally, and cognitively.

It is also comforting and pleasurable because it activates the reward system that releases dopamine. When we hug the loved one, three parts are neurologically activated: affective, desire, and attraction. Therefore, hugs in a couple are like "fireworks" because many neural circuits related to affection, admiration, and desire for the other person are activated. It is as if the brain lights up.

Numerous "pleasure centers" (nucleus accumbens, ventral tegmental area, substantia nigra, and orbitofrontal cortex) respond pleasantly. That is why it is so attractive and, at the same time, so necessary. Campaigns such as "Free hugs" may be a symptom of the fact that in our society, immersed in social networks, affective contact is limited, says Castillo Martínez.