It’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when the doorbell rings and the dog goes crazy at the front door. Your Uncle Jim and Aunt Suzy are standing outside with their suitcases lined up and baked goods in hand. You haven’t seen them since last year and are excited about the holiday festivities. There is one thing you can guarantee is about to happen and that’s the huge bear hug from Uncle Jim. The one where he messes up your hair and then wraps his chubby yet python-like gripped arms around you and nearly picks you off of the ground. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 16 or 28, Uncle Jim’s bear hug is an explosion of excitement yet momentary strangulation crammed into about 2.3 seconds of Euphoria.
Those few seconds of good ole’ hug therapy just completely eliminated your anxiety and dropped your blood pressure. Well, maybe it raised your blood pressure because it felt like Uncle Jim was squeezing your guts out. Either way, this bear hug is scientifically called deep pressure stimulation and many therapists refer to these hugs as touch therapy or hug therapy. Hug therapy does not necessarily mean you will be hugging a person for a certain time period, but instead being touched in some form like a massage, using a heavy weighted blanket or vest, or being swaddled in a bean bag or hammock.
Deep pressure massaging or stimulation is caused by applying pressure to an area of the body in order to stimulate the nervous system. When the nerves are stimulated, messages are sent to the brain, processed, and are sent back as positive or good feelings. This is where the state of relaxation starts to set in. Deep pressure massaging is therapeutic for children and adults of all ages.
Hug Therapy Health Benefits
Calms Cardiovascular Stress
A group of scientists at UNC-Chapel Hill concluded that pre-menopausal women who were hugged often by their partner experienced a reduced heart rate compared to those who did not hug frequently. One study also showed that people that have emotional support in general are less likely to die of heart disease.
Release of the Oxytocin Hormone
When the nervous system is stimulated by deep pressure touch or a hug, the body releases the hormone oxytocin. When the brain senses oxytocin, a physiological effect happens and the sense of trust in human interaction occurs. When the body is touched by a hand gesture or hug, the person feels secure, comfortable, and trusts the person they are in contact with.
Accelerates Wound Healing and Promotes a Healthy Immune System
Oxytocin has been injected into animals and rats in order to study the effects of this hormone. When injected into a rat with a wound, the wound seemed to heal considerably faster than normal. Oxytocin may not only be the “trust” hormone, but may also be responsible for having a healthy immune system when there is a presence of hugs or touching in everyday life.
Improve Cortisol Rhythm
Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone. It is released by the brain so you can fight or flight in a certain circumstance. Many therapists attribute a regular cortisol rythm to touch therapy. The cortisol is released at a slower and less often rate because your body is relaxed by the deep pressure stimulation from a hug or massage.
Hug Therapy for People who Don’t Like to be Touched
Some Autistic children or adults with sensory processing issues become defensive when touched by someone. A tactile action as simple as a pat on the back or a friendly welcoming hug can cause immediate distress. If hug therapy is supposed to be relaxing and soothing, what are the alternatives for these children and adults then? There are actually several alternatives that can simulate this feeling of being held or hugged and you guessed it – there isn’t even another human involved.
The deep pressure stimulation that results from a hug or other tactile gesture can be simulated by several different products ranging from weighted clothing to bean bags and toys.
Weighted Bean Bags
Bean bags are a great option for people of all ages to settle into. They are available in a wide range of sizes, colors, fabrics, shapes, and even stuffing materials. Bean bags mock the cuddling sensation of a hug and you receive pressure from most sides of the bean bags when you nestle into them. A plush bean bag with a super-soft cover plus a weighted blanket is the perfect combination to de-stress and relax.
Weighted vests are common among children and adolescents who prefer to not be hugged or touched. The small hidden weights are placed throughout the vest in various removable compartments so that weight can be added or removed in preferred areas. The tight fitting vest applies pressure and weight to the body and stimulates the nervous system. The vests not only calm the child down during a tantrum, but can also prevent these events from happening altogether. Some vests are even available with a built-in inflatable mechanism. This introduces a gentle pressure like that of a blood pressure monitor that is calming and relaxing to the child.
Weighted blankets are another great option for someone who enjoys the feeling of being hugged, just not by a person. The blankets are a great option for children or adults. The blankets come in handy at home because they can be used as a “blanky” and kids can wrap themselves up or just throw the blanket over their lap or legs. The blankets come in various sizes and weights. Read how some of the brands compare here.
or Happy Sacks are made of soft and flexible Lycra material. The sensory sacks are a popular sensory integration tool used by many occupational therapists. Children and adults of all ages find the sacks to be fun, interesting, and safe. Again, the sacks promote deep pressure stimulation. The sacks are not completely skin tight per-say, however when you are inside you are somewhat forced to push your arms or legs out against the fabric. Since the fabric is flexible, there is a force that is pushing back at you and this is the pressure that stimulates and relaxes the nervous system.
Similar to the sensory sacks, the inflatable pods also force pressure around your body when you lay in them.
The inflatable pods are filled with air, so whatever position you move your body, you will feel pressure pushing against you like the feeling of a hug. Inflatable pods are very easy to transport to an event or take with you on a trip. Most pods can even be inflated with the quick flip of the hands toward the wind or air source.
Steam rollers are typically found in gyms, therapy rooms, or schools due to their size. The concept of the roller is similar to an old clothes wringer. The child or adult simply crawls through the opening and the rollers help push them through. There is usually a foam cushion or pad on the bottom or another set of rollers. The pressure and rolling is another example of how deep pressure stimulation is achieved without the physical touch of a human.
Whether you have a significant other or loved one close by or not, there are many other alternatives to creating your own form of Hug Therapy. Work with your doctor or occupational therapist to see if routine massages or other forms of touch therapy are available to you. If you prefer non-physical pressure, do some more research on which type of weighted object makes sense for your environment and taste.