10 Health Benefits of Cuddling
Cuddling, which includes hugging and snuggling, can provide comfort and support during times of stress.
In a January 2020 survey, nearly 90 percent of people reported liking physical affection from their partners. And 80 percent said they liked it when a friend touched them.
Yet nearly half said they didn’t get enough physical touch, according to The BBC Touch Test, a survey of 40,000 people in 112 countries done in collaboration with Wellcome Collection. And that was before the pandemic set in.
It’s a real problem. Life has never been more stressful. And yet it’s harder than ever to get the snuggles and cuddles to help us deal with it. After all, cuddling has a ton of health benefits that can help you now, during the pandemic, and in the future.
That said, cuddling isn’t for everyone. Many people don’t welcome or want the physical touch that comes from cuddling. However, there are some benefits of physical touch for those who find it soothing.
The science behind cuddling
The instinct to seek out human touch is more powerful than most of us realize. Using it appropriately has a wide array of benefits for giver and receiver. Being starved for physical affection can be incredibly damaging, says James Córdova, PhD, 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,” says Córdova.
Physical touch is also an essential part of how human beings communicate, says Sabrina Romanoff, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health, in New York City.
Part of the power of using physical touch as a form of communication “comes from the fact that it does not involve spoken language.
Body language is often harder to fake and carries more weight because you can communicate in ways that may be difficult through explicit language,” she says. “The act of cuddling implicitly communicates trust and safety in ways you can’t speak.”
“As human beings, we are born as cuddlers, and we never really outgrow it,” says Córdova.
10 health benefits of cuddling
Humans are social creatures and physical touch is a powerful, yet underrated, medicine. A lot of it has to do with hormones, says Lina Velikova, MD, an immunologist, researcher, and assistant professor at Sofia University in Bulgaria.
“Cuddling increases levels of oxytocin, the ‘bonding’ hormone, and decreases levels of cortisol, the ‘stress’ hormone.” These hormones affect everything from your mental health to your cardiovascular system to your sleep, she adds.
Here are some of the proven health benefits of cuddling.
1. Improved ability to deal with stress
There’s a scientific reason that a big hug feels so good on a difficult day. In a study published in 2018 in PLoS One, participants who got a hug were better able to deal with a stressful event and bounced back sooner than those who didn’t.
The emotional resiliency lasted days after the cuddle. The more hugs, the greater the effect. Not all stress is the same, of course.
2. A stronger immune system
People who got regular hugs were less likely to get sick when exposed to a cold virus than people who didn’t get physical affection, according to research published in Psychological Science.
“Cuddling helps improve your immune system, increasing its ability to defend against illness, both by decreasing stress and by improving your mental wellbeing,” Romanoff says, adding that chronic stress has been shown to weaken the immune system.
3. Better mental health
People who cuddle regularly are more resistant to depression and anxiety, Córdova says.
“Cuddling activates our parasympathetic nervous system, bringing feelings of calm and ease while settling feelings of anxiety and sadness,” he says. Physical touch is just one of the little things you can do every day to improve your mental health.
4. A strong sense of connection
It may seem like we’re not lacking for connection in our ultra-connected tech world. But physical touch provides a unique and essential type of bond with others, Córdova says.
This is especially true for couples. If you’re feeling distant from your partner, adding in some daily snuggles will promote not just a better relationship, but also physical and mental health, he says.
5. Reduced feelings of pain
Reaching for a loved one’s hand when you’re in physical pain is a natural reaction. As it turns out, this small gesture can significantly impact how much pain you feel, according to a study published in 2018 in PNAS. It worked best when both people felt close.
Researchers think it may be the shared sense of empathy providing the pain relief.
6. A higher emotional IQ
Experts say that everyone has some level of alexithymia—the inability to recognize or describe your feelings. However, both giving and receiving hugs can help you better understand your emotions and be more open about your struggles, according to a study published in Personality and Individual Differences.
Having a higher “emotional IQ” has a number of social, mental, and physical benefits.
7. Lower blood pressure
Blood pressure is often linked to stress so anything that reduces stress—like a good snuggle session—can help bring it down, Dr. Velikova says. In addition, oxytocin has a protective effect on the heart, she says.
8. A better night’s sleep
Over 60 percent of those who responded to the Touch Test survey said a hug from a partner before sleep had a positive effect on their sleep. It’s so important that many couples consider cuddling to be an essential part of their bedtime routine. One reason for this? “Increased levels of oxytocin help you fall asleep faster and get more restorative sleep,” Dr. Velikova says.
9. Better digestion
Another positive effect of oxytocin? It triggers the “rest and digest” reflex, Romanoff says. “This tells your body that it’s safe to relax and divert energy to things like digestion.” Stress keeps you in a constant fight-or-flight mode. So it reduces energy to other “less-essential” functions, she says.
10. Increased self-confidence
Self-esteem is a key component of health, helping you see yourself as worth taking care of. Hugs and cuddles from others is a documented way to increase your feelings of self-confidence and make you more likely to act on your health goals.