Feeling skin and feeling safe

Let’s all just come out and admit it. There is nothing better than a good hug.

Our skin is our body's largest organ. It is also the fastest growing; it regenerates at an amazing rate—we sport a new coat of it every month. Skin acts as our body’s defense against the external world, as well as our brain’s collector of external data. The tips of our fingers, the soles of our feet, and our lips are designed to pick up the most precise pieces of sensory data, and have intense concentrations of nerve endings just for that purpose.

Even seemingly pure physiological reactions don’t happen in a vacuum—our affective antennae also gather information that informs our responses to circumstances charged with affective and cognitive complexity. The messages that nerve endings send take on another level of sophistication as the body responds at multiple points of activity.

A hug can offer an opportunity to provide a whole range of complex sensory responses that warm our heart and make us feel amazeballs.

The simple act of a hug isn't just felt on our arms. When we embrace someone, oxytocin is released in our brains, making us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Oxytocin is also the neurochemical that has been linked to social bonding. It helps us build trust, it ‘dissolves’ short-term memory and it promotes feelings of bonding. It lays the biological structure for connecting to other people. And we can get it from a hug.

Researchers have also found that the presence of oxytocin can speed up the physical healing of wounds. Studies show that even a brief touch of the hand from someone who cares can start your oxytocin pumping. So when you offer a bear hug to someone in pain, or receive a big old bear hug when you are in pain, you not only begin the healing process, but you also allow your body to shut down memories of the painful stimulus. This is perhaps why the mother’s memories of labour are less disturbing when her newborn is placed in her arms and she is high on oxytocin. (Would there be any other reason women would go through that more than once?) Oxytocin encourages us to warm up to others and creates a sense of safety.

The hormones that are released in the body after a hug aren't just good for our happy-la-la feelings either. They can also help with our physical health. When someone touches us, the sensation on your skin activates pressure receptors called Pacinian corpuscles, which then send signals to the vagus nerve, an area of the brain that is responsible for (among many things) lowering blood pressure.

But the thing that I like most about the hug, is the message we can be sending each other when we engage in the act.

In our lives, the central time for hugging is early childhood. Up to about the age of four, a child may be frequently held, cradled, patted and carried. We accept that a little person can’t manage the trials of existence on their own and they will need a bigger person to take some of the strain. The young child can’t be helped by explanations and reasons; they respond to touch alone. 

But as we grow towards adulthood, independence and self-reliance become key and the sort of hugs we once knew recede. Yet to suggest that we continue to need the proper, older kind of hug is to insist that we go on being, at points, rather like the children we once were, that is, people who can’t cope alone.

To be in need of a hug is to admit – in shorthand – ‘I feel, at the moment, terrifyingly small – and need someone else to be, for a while, like a parent’.

It’s tricky to admit how normal and reasonable such tendencies are. BUT THEY ARE. Some of us might see them like an affront to our individualism and dignity, but there can be no genuine maturity without an accommodation with the childhood self. I am not ashamed to admit that I still go to sleep hugging a soft toy. Or two.

The capacity to regress and show we need some help, should belong within every good loving relationship: it’s a sign that someone feels safe enough with you (and you with them) to allow themselves to be seen in a vulnerable state.

A hug is a symbol of everything we tend to sorely miss in our hyper-individualistic achievement-centred culture: a chance safely to admit that right now we are feeling vulnerable, and the other person is helping to keep us safe.

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