The Benefits of Cuddling
The COVID-19 crisis has reminded us all that humans don’t just crave a hug or a friendly touch. We need it.
As a nurse working on the front line in Denver, 32-year-old Janae Hixson knows a few things about the stress brought about by the pandemic. In addition to all the well-documented strains on healthcare workers, she adds another one: minimal human interaction at work (where she’s wearing PPE all day) and fewer hugs and cuddles at home.
“I always shower and change clothes before I touch the kids. They
know the drill now. My daughter will jump up and down and say, ‘Mom, you have hospital germs! Take a shower so we can snuggle!’” she says. Which Hixson does—stat. “Nothing beats hugs and snuggles with my husband and kiddos after a rough shift at the hospital. Cuddling with them on the couch makes me feel instantly happier and calmer.”
As a result of COVID-19 precautions, many of us are part of this secondary epidemic: people who really need a hug. More than half of the 40,000 people who participated in the BBC’S Touch Test, a survey conducted in 112 countries in collaboration with Wellcome Collection, 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 the Covid-related
lockdowns were taking effect, that number increased to 60 percent, according to a study published in the
Medical Research Archives of the European
Medicine. It was true Society of 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.
Cuddling and hugging aren’t for everyone, of course. Some people feel uncomfortable when others touch them, though nearly 90 percent of participants in the Touch Test reported liking physical affection from their partners, and 79 percent said they liked it when a friend touched them. That instinct to seek out human touch is more powerful than most of us realize.
“We are born as cuddlers, and we never really outgrow it,” says James
Córdova, PHD, a psychology professor and clinical psychologist who directs the Center for Couples and Family Research at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. “I honestly think cuddling should be among the most basic prescriptions for human flourishing.”
Touch starvation may sound touchy-feely in the most literal sense, but the idea is supported by hardcore biology. It starts with hormones. “Cuddling increases levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and decreases levels of cortisol, the stress hormone,” says Lina Velikova, MD, an immunologist, researcher, and assistant professor at Sofia University in Bulgaria. Those same hormones can affect your cardiovascular system, your sleep, and even your mental health.
“Cuddling activates our parasympathetic nervous system, bringing feelings of calm and ease while settling feelings of anxiety and sadness,” Cordova says. 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.