One of my co-workers, who is known for his light-hearted humor and graced with an engaging smile, opened his arms wide to hug me one morning. Receiving it with laughter, I felt warmed, made ready for work and startled all at once.
I love hugs, and his was a wonderful and rare surprise that day. Friendly touch has a great way of reassuring and transmitting feelings of acceptance and openness like no other.
I recently read that historically Americans have not been as touch-oriented as some other cultures. I spent a semester of college in Costa Rica, where I remember adjusting myself to the fact that strangers would often greet me with kisses to my cheeks.
I watched my host family's daughter sit comfortably on one of her male friend's knees in their living room with no problem, but had she gone on a date with him, her papa would have required a chaperone. To this day, Latino culture has always felt warm and inviting to me.
A coffee shop study in the 1960s showed this difference. Reportedly, "In San Juan, Puerto Rico, people touched 180 times an hour; in Paris, France, 110 times an hour; in Gainesville, Fla., 2 times per hour; and in London, England, they never touched.
"A society's touch habits reflect the way people relate on other levels. Americans tend to be a touch cooler than, say, the cheek-kissing Italians or Spaniards. Our physical distancing partially reflects our psychological need for autonomy and independence."
Today our society has a growing awareness of the benefits of touch, as seen in the booming interest in massage and other holistic touch therapies. Touch has been known to help speed healing, boost the immune system, improve circulation, lower blood pressure, decrease stress and depression and increase an overall sense of well-being.
Touch should be continued at every stage of human development. Most of us know that without touch babies can wither and die, but we may not realize that the least touched group in our country today are the elderly. Some experts even feel that teenagers who experience a dropping off of parental hugging, kissing and physical closeness may attempt to make up for it through sexual behavior.
My friend Ayesha sometimes talks about setting up a sign on the beach and giving out free hugs; she loves them so much. The following are some of the benefits of an embrace:
* Hugging your partner can lower his or her blood pressure.
* Researchers have found that in younger women, the more hugs they get, the lower their blood pressure.
* A study at the University of North Carolina that investigated 69 pre-menopausal women showed that those who had the most hugs had a reduced heart rate.
* Other research finds that oxytocin is released during social contact and that it is associated with social bonding. A study at Ohio State University shows that when it is put into wounds in animals, the injuries heal much more quickly.
* Work at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences suggests that oxytocin can induce anti-stress-like effects, including levels of the stress hormone cortisol: "It increases pain thresholds and stimulates various types of positive social interaction, and it promotes growth and healing. Oxytocin can be released by various types of non-noxious sensory stimulation, for example by touch ...," they say.
Enjoy a friendly hug today on me.
Tabi Upton, MA is a counselor at Richmont/CBI Counseling Center and the founder of ChattanoogaCounselor.com,inc., a self-help resource site.