Today is International Hug Day! It reminds us to express what’s in our hearts by using our arms and hands to give and receive the warmth of a hug. Hugs are one of the most primal forms of bonding and yet we often forget to use them as a means of “connecting” or deepening our interpersonal relationships. But science is changing all of that by teaching us about some of the most fundamental reasons to unleash the super-healing power of a properly shared healing hug. What’s a proper healing hug? It eluded me too for most of my life. Because like most Americans, I learned at a very young age that hugs were given, mostly on special occasions–like when you see a relative or friend at a holiday event, wedding, party or funeral–and usually held for just a brief moment. Except when shared with a romantic partner, anything more than a second or two was awkward or inappropriate in a creepy or sexually confusing way.
Also, socially I learned early on that hugs were considered a common and basic way of greeting one another. And over time they lost their deeper meaning. We can all admit to exchanging a quick embrace with someone whom we didn’t honestly like or care for, simply because it was what was culturally expected. I would have continued to miss out on the healing properties of a proper hug for my whole life if not for the findings of a group of German researchers published in the Journal of Neurosciene in 2013. Brilliantly, they discovered that when a hug is held for up to 20 seconds the pituitary gland releases a powerful bonding agent called oxytocin that results in the feeling of a more meaningful connection. They also found that these longer more sustained hugs which released the “happy hormone” were also linked to reducing blood pressure and heart disease too. I believe these findings challenge us all to embrace a new attitude towards the healing power of wrapping our arms around one another. This is important right now as it seems we may be living in a world where digital devices get touched more than the human beings in our lives. Increasingly, we are becoming a touch-deprived culture, as evidenced by the emerging service of professional huggers who get paid to do this. Lets change this trend. Its days like today and National Hugging Day, which is celebrated every year on January 21st, that remind us to connect with human beings in this unique and special way. As one person poignantly put it, “a hug is a handshake from the heart.”
Turns out though, there are some important things to consider before exchanging these heartfelt, heart changing embraces. And they are:
- Ask people first, since not everyone is comfortable with touch that’s so personal.
- Hold the embrace gently, but firmly, in a heart-to-heart manner for 20 seconds.
- Make sure you hug only with people you’re comfortable physically connecting with.
- Because they can be easily misinterpreted, always be impeccable with your hugs.
- Try to be quiet when hugging. The body/mind can get distracted by verbal chatter.
- Be mindful of how around the 15th second, there’s often a deep and peaceful sigh that’s beautifully shared between both huggers.
- Solidify your bonds. Give 20 second hugs daily to your spouse, kids, family, close friends –or anyone whose relational bond matters the most to you.
The wellness benefits of “healing hugs” are many as they naturally pick up your mood, melt away stress, express basic equanimity with natural giving and receiving, and they require being physically present in each others lives, (you can’t elicit the same healing effect from an email, text or phone call). But most of all we should give more 20 second healing hugs simply because they feel good! So embrace the hug and hopefully you’ll welcome the healing benefit of a warm embrace into your life and in so doing, effortlessly spread the benefits on to others as well. Beyond a formal hugging day, like today, I hope you’ll continue to share the physical, mental, social and spiritual benefits of healing hugs with others–and that you’ll do so for your whole life!
Winter is Coming! If you’re like me, and nearly 50% of the population who still carries the hibernation gene, the customary dip in serotonin triggered by the brain’s rise in melatonin, makes you dread this time of year. Waking up in the dark, repeatedly pressing the snooze button, driving to and from work in monochromatic gray (my state has an average of 4 cloudy days per week), piercing cold winds, bulky winter coats, and mounting cabin fever–are just some of the many factors contributing to the cold sting of winter’s harsh reality. For many years, fleeing the state every February, like a sun-starved junky in need of a solar fix, was my only option for coping. Like most people who live in the northern states, I learned to accept this as my winter reality for my whole life knowing that happier days always arrived with the spring. But suffer no more! Fortunately, many advances in brain-based wellness have given us a better understanding of Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) and scientifically proven ways to better manage this unique mind/body challenge.
Are you S.A.D. susceptible? Does the decrease in daylight cause predictable changes in your energy, moods, and social behaviors? Think back over the years and ask yourself if you recognize the following personal changes that show up only in the winter:
- Increased length of sleep (45 minutes to 2.5 hours longer, depending on severity)
- Decreased interest in social activities (especially after the holidays)
- Drop in mood and overall feeling of wellbeing (“winter blues” in milder cases)
- Irritability (fueled by that cooped up, lethargic “cabin fever” feeling)
- Uncontrollable Appetite (resulting in binge eating on bad carbs only in the winter)
- Weight gain (due to eating too many “pleasure-making” sweet or starchy carbs)
- Energy dips (that paradoxically steal your motivation to do wellness practices)
- Rise in compulsions and addictions (remember alcohol is ultimately a depressant)
If you struggle with the majority of these symptoms, hope has arrived and early intervention is key. According to Dr. Norman Rosenthal, author of the book Winter Blues, “Over 80% of people with low energy or fatigue may expect to benefit from light therapy within 2-4 days.” So try adopting the following steps to help winterize your brain and body:
- Start using light boxes early in the season as a kind of natural energizing antidepressant.(the standard is at least 5,000 Lux daily–every morning)
- Cardiovascular exercise, minimally 30 minutes 3x’s/week boosts 3 out of 4 brain chemicals, making it the activity a day that could keep the psychiatrist away.
- Eat more neuro-nourishing foods and spices that can help bolster serotonin without the guilt of binging on sweet or salty junk food. Consuming more yogurt, avocados, chicken, whole grains, dark chocolate, basil, nutmeg, peppermint, turmeric, etc. can help. (view more options in my app– Blue STAR Bright available on iTunes and Google Play)
- Practice self-kindness without judgments. Its not your fault your brain responds to winter this way. Instead of feeling ashamed, do your best to understand what your whole self–body, mind, and spirit–needs to rise above your genetics and environment.
And if you suffer with the more debilitating version of S.A.D., which often severely interferes with functionality at work and home, consider seeing a mental health professional. Supportive therapy with the possibility of short term supplementation or in severe cases, medication, can lessen your suffering and help you feel happier.
I’ve also found that by attitudinally reframing what used to be a dreadful time of year as an opportunity to master responsible self-care can make a big difference too. What a great time winter provides us to explore what makes our spirits soar. I’m dedicating this winter to deepening my study of Ashtanga yoga, one of my new and favorite happy-making wellness practices. You too can rise above the cold sting of the darkest time of year by winterizing your brain and body, and doing it for your whole life.
For help coping with SAD or any other mental health challenge, visit our website at http://www.starsofwellness.com to set up a consultation or appointment. Also, like us on Facebook for inspirational, positive postings.