Happiness is... a warm hug
Experts say that hugging can make you healthier and happier. But what if it doesn’t come naturally? Daisy Buchanan gets some cuddle therapy.
I’ll admit that when I first looked into attending a “cuddle workshop”, I was sceptical. And I wasn’t the only one. “You’re learning how to hug? Isn’t that a volume of an encyclopedia?” one “hilarious” friend chortled.
I wouldn’t say I’m anti-hugging but the circumstances have to be right. In fact, the only time I do any serious cuddling is when I’m on the sofa with my arms around my boyfriend, and I’m not sure that it counts when our minds aren’t on it and we’re giggling at a repeat of You’ve Been Framed. I greet close friends with a quick squeeze and a kiss on the cheek, but we don’t linger. It’s not so much a tender and pleasurable embrace as an administrative one. I’d happily stay there for longer, but I’m frightened they’d think me a bit weird.
The other issue with hugs and cuddles is that they can easily be misconstrued. We’re not used to dispensing cuddles for the fun of it, and if someone you don’t know wants to embrace you, it’s normal to question their motives. Prolonged cuddles are reserved for partners, pets and people you’re closely related to, if you’re lucky. And yet the health benefits of hugging are enormous. Periods of physical touch release oxytocin, the “feelgood hormone”, in our brain, which has immediate and long-term effects, increasing our feelings of optimism and self-esteem as well as helping with everything from social anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder, and even boosting our immune system. If you want a long, healthy, happy life, hugging might be the answer.
“The trouble with you guys is that you’re not culturally conditioned to hug,” says Rafia Morgan. “The psychologist Sidney Jourard studied different nationalities, to discover how frequently they touched each other. When the Brits were with their friends, they didn’t touch each other at all. Americans usually touched each other twice during conversations. The French average was 110 times.”
Morgan is a spiritual therapist and teacher whose work includes helping people to explore non-sexual, physical touch. As soon as I meet him, he greets me with a hug. I’m not feeling cuddly: I’m 20 minutes late, having travelled to the wrong branch of the cafe where we arranged our workshop, I’ve been caught in a storm and I’m not sure which of my damp patches are rainwater and which are sweat. But in spite of myself, I feel soothed straight away by Morgan’s embrace. He pulls me close in an avuncular fashion, and doesn’t seem to mind that I’m grumpy and soggy. “That was a good hug!” I exclaim afterwards.
“It’s putting a hand at the base of the spine,” he explains. “It makes people feel reassured straight away. It’s very grounding.”
I ask him to critique my efforts. “Not bad for a beginner,” he says kindly. “You felt quite tense – I could tell that you felt a little awkward. But then, we’d just met, and usually we would probably have just started with a handshake.”
Over the past 35 years he has done everything from training high-end coaches in the business world to leading meditation retreats in India. He also works with survivors of sexual abuse and other traumas.
“I had one client who had to sit in a separate room from me when we started,” Morgan recalls. “We were in adjoining rooms, and spoke through the doorway. Understandably, they needed a lot of distance to feel comfortable. Not all touch therapy involves touch immediately – it’s not appropriate for every client, so we just talk, as you would in traditional therapy. After some work, we could move into the same room, and I’m pleased to say they’ve made so much progress over the years.
”Learning to be comfortable with touch can be incredibly hard, especially when your trust has been challenged or even broken.”
Morgan’s words make me realise how, often with good reason, we’re scared of touching and being touched. We spend a lot of effort and energy fearing the wrong kind of touch, which is possibly what makes it hard for us to explore and pursue the positive benefits of touch. So how can we introduce touch slowly?
Morgan asks me to put my hand on the table, and presses a warm, dry hand over mine. “Hand-holding can be a great place to start,” he says, “because you can do that without there being a pressure to escalate the touch. It’s instantly bonding, and effective because it’s still. You can communicate trust, and tell someone you’re not going anywhere.” Still holding my hand, he tells me about visiting his elderly mother in San Francisco, who is suffering from dementia, and how she becomes more lucid and communicative after being hugged. The hand-holding stops feeling slightly strange and starts feeling reassuring. At this point Gemma, the photographer, arrives, and she’s taken aback by our pose. “I did wonder whether you were mid-workshop, or if you were there as a couple,” she explains.
We do some “live action” shots, and they’re surprisingly enjoyable. Morgan is an excellent hugger, and I feel validated by the camera. I can get into the hug when it has a purpose, and I feel as if I can relax and let go without worrying about being the first to pull away. When we’ve finished, I’m surprised by how exhausted I am. Intense hugging is surprisingly physical.
I think that everyone I know could probably benefit from a session with Morgan. I can’t dispute the power of the hug, and I feel noticeably warmer, happier and more relaxed after being with him; I’m assuming that’s the oxytocin. The trouble is that we don’t have a cuddle culture in the UK, and the nature of the hug is that you need a partner to practise with. I’m not going to start embracing strangers on the street and saying: “Not only will this boost our immune system, it’s going to make us both feel calmer too!” I think that’s guaranteed to raise everyone’s blood pressure and stress levels. However, I’m going to remember Morgan’s words when I’m with people I’m close to: “People love hugs, but they’re often frightened to instigate them because they fear rejection.” I’m going to make serious efforts to be more tactile with my nearest and dearest. I might even turn off You’ve Been Framed.
More information about Rafia Morgan can be found at his website rafia.info
Sourced from The Guardian.