5 ways hugging supports your nervous system
Hugging someone who you feel safe with or exploring self-hugs is a beautiful way to create internal safety that can positively impact your mental health. Here are the ways hugging supports your nervous system.
Your sense of touch allows you to explore the world around you, communicate and connect with yourself and others. Hugs are an innate function of humans that leave you feeling supported and connected with yourself and others. Hugs activate parts of the brain that control the vagus nerve, which is made up of 75% parasympathetic fibres. In this ventral vagal (rest and digest) state, you can restore energy, heal the body and experience social and connected states. Hugs activate the parasympathetic system and elevate feelings of connection, compassion and love via the release of oxytocin and serotonin. (Also read: Practice hugging meditation for a healthy relationship)
" There are two types of touch. First, you have your fast touch system which gives you the ability to rapidly detect contact (e.g when you touch a hot kettle). The second is "slow touch" which is made up of special nerves called C tactile afferents, which process the emotional meaning of touch. These nerves have only recently been discovered and have evolved essentially to be cuddle nerves, and are only activated by a specific type of stimulation such as gentle, warm touch like a hug or caress. Hugs offer gentle physical touch which stimulates nerve endings and stimulates many beneficial changes in the brain." says, Anna, Popular Anxiety Therapist and Certified Health and Nutrition Coach, in her recent Instagram post. She further explained how hugs support our nervous system.
1. Hugs boost our immunity
On top of gentle touch, hugs also offer a perception of support from others. One study found that this combination of perceived support and touch decreased the level and severity of illness and infection. High levels of stress suppress your ability to fight off illness and infection. Hugging regulates cortisol and oxytocin, which boosts the body's immune system and response.
2. Hugs lower blood pressure and increase oxytocin
When you get hugged, this stimulates the c-tactile afferent nerves and sends signals from your skin, through your spinal cord to your brain's emotional process network. This activates the release of oxytocin, which slows heart rate, blood pressure and reduces stress and anxiety levels. Recent studies have shown that frequent hugs are associated with lower blood pressure and higher oxytocin levels.
3. Hugs increase your silence of well-being and pleasure
Research on touch found an association between receiving a hug and a reduction of negative mood that occurs on days with interpersonal conflict. Meaning that if you're experiencing a challenging day with someone, a hug can shift mood states and have positive effects for long after the hug itself.
4. Hugs regulate your sleep
Cortisol is a key hormone in the sleep-wake cycle and it runs on a 24-hour rhythm. Cortisol levels are normally highest in the morning around 9 am, allowing you to wake up and start your day. After its peak in the morning, cortisol levels decrease throughout the day, reaching their lowest levels around midnight. They then start to build up again in the second half of your sleep in order for you to wake again!
If you experience elevated or chronic stress, then cortisol levels do not drop to the point in which sleep can come online in a cyclical and natural pattern. Gentle touch like hugs plays a role in regulating sleep by lowering cortisol levels so that melatonin (a key hormone for sleep) can help you fall and stay asleep.
5. Hugs lower your stress hormones
Studies have shown that hugging boosts the hormone oxytocin which produces feelings of safety & connection. In this state, you are less reactive to stressors throughout your day, but also in the long term, builds resilience and lowers reactivity to stress.
How to get your dose of hugs:
• Patting a furry friend has been found to release "happy hormones" oxytocin and serotonin.
• Make the most of small gestures of connectedness with friends, teammates and people you come across in daily life.
• Massage therapy is a great way to receive gentle, consensual touch.
• Hug a safe, trusted person in your life.
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