The Benefits of Cuddling
Why touch is actually good for us
As a result of COVID-19 precautions, many of us are part of this secondary epidemic: people who really need a hug. Fifty-four per cent of the 40,000 people who participated in the BBC’s Touch Test, a survey conducted in 112 countries, said they didn’t get enough physical interaction: an arm around the shoulder, a sympathetic touch or a long snuggle. And that was before the pandemic set in.
By April 2020, as COVID-related lockdowns were taking effect, that number increased to 60 per cent, according to a study published in the Medical Research Archives of the European Society of Medicine. It was true regardless of whether a person lived alone or with others. Health-care professionals have given a name to this condition that is affecting so much of society: touch starvation.
“We are born as cuddlers, and we never really outgrow it,” says James Cordova, a psychology professor and clinical psychologist at Clark University near Boston. Cuddling can be foot rubs, back rubs, hand-holding, laying your head on someone’s chest, sitting on a lap or side by side on the couch with legs touching, spooning or other types of loving touches—including hugs. It’s not for everyone, of course. Some people feel uncomfortable when others touch them, though nearly 90 per cent of participants in the Touch Test reported liking physical affection from their partners, and 79 per cent said they liked it when a friend touched them. That instinct to seek out human touch is more powerful than most of us realize.
And as it turns out, it’s good for our physical health. “Cuddling increases levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and decreases levels of cortisol, the stress hormone,” says Dr Lina Velikova, an immunologist and assistant professor at Sofia University in Bulgaria. Those same hormones can affect your cardiovascular system, your sleep, and even your mental health.Adds Cordova: “Cuddling activates our para-sympathetic nervous system, bringing feelings of calm and ease while settling feelings of anxiety and sadness.” Blood pressure is often linked to stress, so anything that reduces stress can help bring it down. In addition, oxytocin has a protective effect on the heart.
The human touch can help keep you from getting a cold: People who got regular hugs were less likely to get sick when exposed to a cold virus than people who didn’t get physical affection, according to research published in Psychological Science. And touch can even reduce physical pain. A study published in 2018 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the act of reaching for a loved one’s hand for comfort can diminish pain, especially if the person you are touching is someone you feel close to. “Even minor physical contact can be beneficial to you both,” Romanoff says.
Hugging can help you sleep better. More than 60 per cent of those who responded to the Touch Test survey said a hug from a partner before sleep had a positive effect on their night, thanks to the oxytocin it triggers, Velikova says. It also aids digestion, making for a more restful sleep.
Beyond focusing solely on your partner, close friends, children, or grandchildren—children are, of course, natural cuddlers—you can look beyond humans. Pets are good snugglers. There’s a reason why therapy animals exist: petting and loving animals help you feel better. Says Cordova: “I honestly think cuddling should be among the most basic prescriptions for human flourishing.”