Would You Like a Hug?

We don’t become depressed because antidepressants are missing from our daily diet, but a shortage of hugs can lead to anxiety, depression, and worse.


A Trying Week

The woman arrived at our Saturday morning meditation group looking more stressed out than usual. She later confessed that it had been a trying week. She took one of her precious days off from her stressful job to wait at home for a contractor. He never called or showed up. She scheduled a massage for Saturday morning. Her massage therapist texted her at the last minute to cancel.

So, she came to meditate.

Mindfulness practice is a proven technique for developing a stress and depression resistant brain, but the woman had correctly diagnosed and self-prescribed an effective, fast-acting formula for short-term stress relief.

She’d just been unable to fill the prescription.

Primary Emotional Care

I instinctively recognized that what the woman needed was something that I didn’t feel I could offer.

Every child who falls and skins a knee knows enough to seek out a hug to feel better. But when adults fall down, when others fail us, when we fail others, when we’re having a tough day, or week, or year, where can we go for that much-needed hug?

Why Men Can’t Offer Hugs

In the article The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer, Mark Greene told me why I had balked.

Men fear being labeled as sexually inappropriate by women.

The flip side of this challenge is that women can’t freely offer hugs to men for fear of being misinterpreted.

The rest of Greene’s article raises a host of other issues that make it impossible for men to get their primary emotional care needs met.

We live in a virulently homophobic culture so all contact between men is suspect.

We don’t want to risk any hint of being sexual toward children.

We don’t want to risk our status as macho or authoritative by being physically gentle.

We don’t ever want to deal with rejection when we reach out. (And in our touch averse culture that is the most likely outcome.)

Living in a society where men are cut off from hugs is no picnic for women either.

It Gets Worse

If lack of touch only impacted anxiety and depression, it would be tempting to recommend pharmaceutical intervention to provide short-term support while the well-being exercises from this website start to kick in.

But lack of touch can also lead to distrust and alienation, weight fluctuation, high blood pressure, sleep loss, diminished self-worth, and lack of empathy.

All of these maladies are less prevalent in cultures where touch is more accepted.

And, while sexual relationships are our culture’s last refuge for touch, the Psychology Today article “The Power of Touch” points out why they’re not the answer either.

Research involving observation of couples in public and analysis of their self-reports shows that the amount of touching rises at the beginning of a relationship, peaks somewhere early in a marriage, and then tapers off. Over time romantic partners adjust the amount of touching they do, up- or downshifting their behavior to move closer to their significant other’s habits. Inability to converge on a common comfort zone tends to derail a relationship early on, while among couples in long-term marriages, touching reaches an almost one-to-one ratio.

Recognizing this scenario had played out in my own long-term relationship, and  that we’re all amateurs at getting our touch needs met, I decided to consult a professional.

Professional Hugs

I schedule a consultation with Portland’s internationally famous professional cuddler/cuddle trainer Samantha Hess.

We talked about the stressed out woman at meditation. She told me how the out-of-sync touch ratio in her marriage had led to many of the hallmark touch deprivation symptoms, and eventually to divorce.

Then she told me how a video prank on YouTube changed the course of her life.

A guy at Portland Saturday Market stood around holding a FREE HUGS sign. Another guy stood beside him with a more entrepreneurial sign. DELUXE HUGS $2.

By turning a sexually suspect cry for free love into a “deluxe” inexpensive non-sexual product, the guy with the $2 hugs got more business.

Samantha Hess got it. As a newly divorced single woman, she would totally pay someone to hug her without hitting on her. “Where is the Starbucks for hugs?”

Unable to find one, she opened one.

The Role of Professional Cuddling

Massage took generations to gain acceptance. Now it’s viewed, in some quarters, as sanctioned platonic touch. The stressed out woman who came to meditation was right to schedule one.

But to get the full physical and mental benefits of touch, to hug, it is important to give as well as to receive.

The most frequent objection I hear to professional cuddling is that hugs and empathy should be free. I agree. They’re too essential to our physical and mental well-being to go without. And without that laundry list of silly social taboos making them so hard to get, providing a non-judgmental retail space with appropriate boundaries for safety wouldn’t be necessary. It’s the space that costs money, the time of the cuddler, and the training to deal with the pent-up baggage of the touch-deprived people who have gone so long without.

Hard to Be Simple

At the end of our consultation, Samantha Hess gave me a copy of her book, Touch: The Power of Human Connection. It helped me overcome the awkwardness of asking for a hug when I need one, at least from my partner and closer acquaintances. It also made it easier for me to offer one by clarifying the intention and the benefits.    

Before I left, she asked me a question that I couldn’t recall ever being asked before.

“Would you like a hug?”

Twenty Second to Ten Minute Exercise

If you suspect that touch deficiency may be a contributing factor to your symptoms of depression or lack of well-being, try one of the following diagnostic exercises.

  • Watch “The Benefits and Science of Cuddling with a Professional Cuddler” on YouTube (a little over four minutes).
  • To investigate on your own, try placing your hand over your heart, or give yourself a hug and slowly stroke your arms up and down for twenty seconds. Notice whether there’s a soothing effect.
  • If you can find a willing volunteer, ask if they’d consider engaging in a twenty second hug. When the hug goes on longer than usual, there’s usually a giggle or awkward laughter. This is a sign of tension release when the oxytocin starts to kick in. Notice how your mind and body feel at the end of twenty seconds.
  • Schedule a Swedish massage. You’re not looking to work out muscle kinks here, although it’s fine to do that, too. Pay attention to your physical and emotional response to the sensation of hands on your skin. This may not kick in right away, but notice whether the massage leaves you feeling more relaxed, less anxious.
  • Book a session with a certified professional cuddler. This offers you the opportunity to give as well as receive non-sexual platonic touch. Notice how your mind and body feel after a session.

I’m a terrible control subject for stress because it comes and goes very quickly for me. But, my experience with professional touch sessions (massage/cuddling) was similar to what I experienced when I once took Valium (muscle relaxation, anti-anxiety). Your mileage may vary.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.