Hugs and Healthy Hearts
by Grif Alspach, RN, MSN, EdD
Every now and then, science and intuition converge and seem to affirm things we knew all along. From our earliest memories as small children, we instinctively ran to our mother whenever we cut, abraded, scratched, bumped, pinched, burned, or otherwise injured ourselves or fell victim to such treacheries from others. We learned that a mother’s soothing words, gentle ministrations, and warm caress were universal solvents to virtually all of life’s irritants, disappointments, troubles, and fears.
Years later, we deduced that we had grown up because we now dealt with all of those annoyances on our own. Although repeated opportunities to manage such wrinkles in our personal and professional lives purportedly help us to build self-confidence, they can occasionally make us long for those days when mom’s hug was all that we needed to make everything alright again. Are hugs still good for us or was that belief just a childhood delusion? Perhaps I’m just a wuss, but on more occasions than I’d like to admit, they still work for me.
So where’s the science in all of this?
Interestingly, the work of 2 researchers from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill may be helping to shed some scientific light on these dynamics. Studies completed by psychologists Karen Grewen and Kathleen C. Light* have afforded some physiologic evidence that supports the contention that our positive response to warm physical contact does not disappear once we have successfully side-stepped the failure to thrive syndrome as infants, the tumultuous passage through childhood, or the turbulence of adolescence. Rather, physical contact of this nature is associated with measurable and meaningful attenuation of blood pressure and heart rates in adults.1 If hugs from significant others can help blunt our physiologic response to life’s inevitable stressors, perhaps repeated instances of warm contact and feelings of closeness to others may mitigate the negative effects that life’s hassles can inflict on bodily systems.2
In the study1 referred to, couples who were either married or long-term cohabiting partners were divided as study participants into 2 groups: Group 1 consisted of 100 adults with spouses or long-term partners, who were asked to hold hands while viewing a pleasant, 10-minute video, and then to hug each other for 20 seconds (the “huggers”). Group 2 comprised 85 adults without their spouses or partners, who were asked to rest quietly for that time (the “nonhuggers”). At the conclusion of this period, all participants were required to give a brief “speech” in which they identified something that had stressed or angered them. Following the speeches, all participants had their blood pressure and heart rate measured. A summary of results is as follows:
Systolic and diastolic pressures rose in both groups.
Elevations in both systolic and diastolic pressures were significantly higher in the non-huggers compared to the huggers.
The rise in systolic pressure among the nonhuggers was more than double the rise exhibited by the huggers.
Heart rates increased by an average of 5 beats/min among huggers.
Heart rates increased by an average of 10 beats/min among nonhuggers.
Although these changes in blood pressure and heart rate were found in both genders, the magnitude of the changes was greater in women compared with men.
A similar set of findings from another study by Grewen and Light is described informally at one of the UNC university Web sites.3 In this study, one unanticipated finding was that African Americans in the hugger group not only had smaller increases in heart rate and blood pressure than the nonhuggers, but also exhibited significantly smaller increases in these parameters when compared with whites. Dr Grewen3 says that “warm physical and/or social contact may be especially beneficial in this high-risk [African-American] group.” Related research by this team has led them to propose that even a brief episode of warm, loving contact at the start of a rough day might protect partners throughout the entire day.4
At the 2004 annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society, Dr Grewen5 reportedly described some results from a new study involving 76 adults who were either married or in long-term cohabiting relationships. In that study, partners or spouses who described their relationship as happy had significantly higher levels of oxytocin compared with duos who described themselves as unhappy. Each couple was asked to converse privately for 5 minutes regarding some circumstances that drew them closer to one another, then to watch a romantic video together and to hug each other. During these warm contacts, women experienced significantly higher levels of oxytocin, lower levels of norepinephrine, and lower blood pressure compared to men. It may well be, as Dr Grewen asserts, that oxytocin triggers physiologic changes that help to protect women’s hearts and that their so-called “nesting” tendencies benefit not only their mates and offspring, but also themselves.
No one is advocating unsolicited and unwanted patient bearhugging, but therapeutic hugger and snuggler is certainly a possible role to suggest to significant others and family members who feel helpless in caring for their loved one. Hugs are no panacea, but there’s evidence that they can pacify. Yeah, I knew that all along!
Found at the American Association of Critical-Care Nurse, article WITH references: http://bit.ly/YIrVHf
*Name given in original article is an error. We have corrected for this version and have contacted the American Association of Critical Care Nurses as well.
Art by Cameron Gray
Hugs and Healthy Hearts