There are volumes and volumes of research demonstrating how crucial touch is to our development and ongoing mental health. Studies have linked shared touch to stress reduction, strengthening of the immune system, neurological development in the brain, the ability to form emotional connections, pain reduction, and a host of other both physiological and psychological phenomena. Again and again research has shown that affectionate touch plays a powerful role in our overall health and development.
Research is also showing that trends towards technology and away from human contact are having greater and greater impact on our health at a societal level. Our devices offer us access to unprecedented amounts of information and opportunities to form vast networks of virtual connections but all that information brings with it a new form of stress and anxiety. Plus spending more time with our devices and virtual connections means spending more time with the source of that stress and less time our most powerful tool for combating feelings of isolation and anxiety.
On a more ideological level our efforts to become more aware and mindful of consent and personal comfort are important and valuable but they can come with dangers of their own. The more strictly touch becomes socially regulated the less access we feel we have to something we deeply need both mentally and physically. In the very necessary attempt to make people feel safe we need to make sure we don’t turn all touch into something to be viewed with suspicion or accusation. People’s preferences and comfort with touch can vary greatly, and sadly too many people have had traumatic experiences which can make touch a very complicated thing for them, but ‘No touch’ is not the answer. We can be mindful and considerate and still touch one another.
All this means we need to make the most of our safe and viable accesses to touch. This makes a good hug a vitally important thing to share with one another and while hugging might be instinctive it is also a skill, not unlike handshaking or neck massaging. Some have a knack for it, others not as much. We all have that one friend we never ask to work on a stiff neck or shoulder muscle. Whether we are the snuggly sort or the type who prefers only occasional contacts we all need the benefits a good hug can bring so here are seven keys to giving and receiving good hug.
Just because we need and strongly desire touch does not mean we are entitled to it. Some people or moments are freely open to a hug, some are not. When offering a hug open your arms, make eye contact, and wait for acknowledgment from the other person that they are down for sharing a squeeze. Whether dealing with a more casual social contact or a partner in a long term relationship, romantic or friendship or family, we want to always allow room for and be aware of the signals and cues from each other. Even snuggly types sometimes just aren’t in the mood. Always ask, and be okay with it if they say no. An offer where acceptance is the only allowed response isn’t actually an offer, it’s a demand and no one has the right to demand access to another person’s body event at a casual level. There could be a million different reasons someone might not want to hug and they have every right to make that decision, it’s their body. If the other person would rather not just the offer itself can provide beneficial meaning if they are able to make their own choice about it. And the same applies to you if you are being asked and aren’t feeling in the mood.
Try to match shoulder level
Humans come in a nearly infinite variety of shapes and sizes but for a good hug we want to try and get the shoulders as close to a matching level as we can, having one’s face feel crushed against a shoulder or smothered in a chest can kinda take the fun out of it. Sometimes this doesn’t take much, sometimes it can be tricky. When dealing with someone seated who isn’t able to rise always shift down to their level, perhaps take a knee next to them. If the height difference is considerable allow the shorter person to have their arms underneath rather than make them feel strained upwards. A hug only provides its optimum benefits if it feels comfortable and sustainable.
Use a cross-arm embrace
Unless there are obstacles to it the most balanced form of embrace is with both individuals having one arm overtop and the other underneath, doesn’t really matter which arm is which though most people seem to prefer their dominant hand overtop. This places both people on even footing and sense of control. The slightly diagonal aligning of the bodies keeps the embrace feeling more platonically affectionate, offering everyone an open window for their face. The direct vertical alignment of having both arms above or below doesn’t automatically make things romantic but it does make the embrace feel more intense, which can of course be lovely. I have one friend who is almost legendary for his ‘I haven’t seen you in too long’ hugs wherein he comes in low and scoops people up without making it seem like he’s actually going to pick them up. The more you know someone, the more often you hug them, the more your hugs with them will develop but for good all-purpose use the diagonal approach offers the best results.
Be belly conscious
At our base levels we are mammals with survival instincts. As such our bellies and abdomens are where we feel most vulnerable. Add to that all the hang-ups and sensitivities around weight and body image and people can end up being pretty self-conscious about their stomach being touched. Also, to be blunt, it is absolutely imperative that we are extremely careful about making any sort of pelvic contact. Some people are extremely comfortable with their bodies but for many people contact below the sternum can be unsettling and any contact below the naval can feel incredibly invasive. We always want to be respectful when touching other people but even more so around the stomach and abdomen. The above mentioned cross-arm embrace also helps to offset a lot of this kind of potential stress.
Hug with your forearms
There are a lot of ‘hug substitutes’ out there. The ‘mwa mwa’ air kiss, the thumping back clap, the constant windshield-wipering with one hand. These are all distilled social niceties, congenial gestures which are essentially diluted stand-ins for a proper embrace. There’s nothing wrong with polite social gestures but they are an extremely poor substitute for actual affection, like being offered a whiff of your favorite meal instead of the actual meal itself. When embracing someone wrap your arms around them and, rather than fixating on your hands, squeeze gently with the insides of your forearms. Rather than grasping with the fingers, thumping with the palms, or swiping at their back like you’re trying to start a fire, just relax your hands and let your arms to the talking.
Hold for at least one full breath
Research shows that hugs lasting twenty to thirty seconds can have profound impact on stress, our immune system, even our ability to sleep at night, and those kinds of hugs can be truly awesome and wonderful things. Or course not every hug can rise to that kind of level but even a casual social hug can bring us some of those benefits as long as it lasts long enough. It doesn’t take twenty seconds, or ten, or even five for that matter. Simply hold the hug for one full breath, inhale and exhale. Not only does that allow enough time for the embrace to seep in but the act of drawing in and then releasing and nice deep breath while embracing beautifully increases all the benefits and feeling of connection. With those you are close to aim for three good breaths. Those you are truly close to, aim for five. And if you’re fortunate to have someone you are close with who also loves a good squeeze try one of the thirty seconders. They truly are something else.
Cultivate hugging in your relationships
The different people in our lives will all have different preferences for amounts of physical affection. Take the time and make the effort to figure those limits and preferences out, don’t take anything on simple assumption. If at all possible try to make even a minimal space in every relationship for at least a brief hug from time to time, if just on greeting or parting. With those who are more keen create the space for as much contact as you feel comfortable with, we should all be so lucky to have at least one friend who is a big hugger. With societal trends veering further and further away from direct human contact it is all the more crucial we cultivate it in our lives. An incredibly important part of this is also cultivating space for you and those in your life to ask for a hug when one is needed. We all have our moments, even those who are not big on physical affection, when we just really need a hug and one of the best gifts we can give to ourselves and others is the open invitation to ask. The benefits of being able to simply ask for a hug when we need one can be immeasurable. And they start with knowing that we can.
A brief word on children
As a general rule children should be lavished with as much touch and affection as possible, especially as infants, but it’s important to note even among children there is variance. Some kids are snugglers, some aren’t. Touch is crucial to healthy development but we don’t want to force it on them nor do we want them to feel restricted from it. Sadly there are those who abuse the openness and formative affection children exude, share, and seek and thus vigilance and awareness are essential. But here as well, if even more crucially, ‘No touch’ is not the answer. If in our attempts to protect them we end up imprinting on children the idea that all touch is to be mistrusted we will be setting the stage for generations of people with potentially ever increasing struggles with isolation, depression, and anxiety. So with the little ones follow the ‘plastic phone rule’. If they walk up and offer you a hug, accept.
We need to be respectful and aware with one another, but we also need to be open and affectionate. We need connection, we need to bond, we need touch. So hug. Hug lots. And try to make ’em good ones.