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Yes, You Can (and Should) Give Yourself a Hug

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Hugs can provide a lot of comfort.

They can help you feel closer to someone you care about, whether that’s a partner, friend, or child. They can also increase feelings of happiness and fulfillment by reinforcing your knowledge that other people care about you.

When circumstances prevent you from spending time with loved ones, you might feel pretty desperate for physical affection. Touch is a basic need, so this is absolutely normal. Going without, especially for a longer period of time than usual, can have a pretty big impact on your emotional health.

There’s some good news here. Getting a hug from your nearest and dearest will help you feel better pretty quickly. In the meantime, if you really need a hug and you’re on your own, why not try giving yourself one?

We get it. Self-hugging might sound a little awkward, even silly, but it’s absolutely a real thing.

Hugging yourself has serious benefits

Like hugging, self-hugging can have some pretty big benefits, so it’s a great way to give yourself some love.

It can help relieve pain

According to research from 2011, hugging yourself could help reduce pain.

In this small study, researchers used a laser to generate pinprick-like sensations of pain in 20 participants. When participants crossed their arms (similar to the way you’d cross your arms when giving yourself a hug), they reported experiencing less pain.

The authors suggest this outcome relates to confusion in the brain about where the pain comes from. The pain happens at one location, but if you have your arms crossed, your brain gets mixed up over the location of the pain signal.

While your brain works to sort this out, it has a reduced capacity to process other information — including the intensity of the pain.

You might have some familiarity with a similar strategy to relieve pain if you’ve ever tried to rub or slap at a sore, itchy, or irritated spot. Adding additional sensations gives your brain more to process, which can affect how it perceives your level of pain.

Pain relief associated with hugging may have another explanation, too.

Research from 2015 suggests the hormone oxytocin, released with soothing touch, may play a role in pain relief.

Oxytocin release could help relieve pain directly. The review authors note this hormone can also help reduce sensitivity to pain indirectly by decreasing feelings of anxiety and fear.

It can help you feel safe and secure

The importance of human connection can’t be understated, and social support offers plenty of benefits. When someone you care for wraps their arms around you in a hug, for example, you probably feel comforted and less alone.

Giving yourself a hug can replicate these feelings of comfort and safety. Think of it as a sort of stand-in until you can hug someone else again.

It can improve your mood

Maybe you had a long day or feel a little grim for no clear reason. Perhaps you can’t spend time with loved ones for the moment and the strain of isolation is catching up with you.

Touch, even your own touch, helps promote relaxation since it lowers levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your body. Sure, a hug won’t solve your problems entirely, but it can help relieve some of your tension and stress.

So, the next time you feel stretched thin, irritable, or burned out, taking time for a good, long hug may help raise your spirits and brighten your mood.

It can increase self-compassion

Like touch, self-compassion can lower cortisol levels and improve overall well-being.

One way to boost self-compassion? You guessed it: Give yourself a hug.

According to leading self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, PhD, hugging, stroking, and physically comforting your body increases feelings of love and tenderness toward the self.

Practicing self-kindness helps make it easier to accept yourself as you are and soothe yourself after hardship or mistakes. By increasing mindful acceptance and self-esteem, self-compassion can also improve your general outlook on life.

How to do it

If you can’t clearly visualize how to hug yourself, don’t worry. The process might seem a little odd at first, but it’s actually pretty simple.

You can absolutely go for it just as you would when hugging someone else, but if you’d like some clearer guidelines, these tips can help.

Self-hugging 101

  1. Fold your arms around your body, positioning them in a way that feels natural and comfortable. For example, folding your arms across your stomach or just below your chest might feel easier than hugging yourself around the chest.
  2. Rest your hands on your shoulders or upper arm (just above your biceps). Again, go with what feels natural. If you hug yourself across the stomach, you might find it comfortable to curve your hands around your sides.
  3. Imagine the type of hug you want. A strong, intense hug? Or a softer, soothing hug?
  4. Squeeze yourself with just enough pressure to create the sensation you’re looking for.
  5. Hold the hug for as long as you like.
  6. Some people find it soothing to gently rock back and forth while hugging themselves, so you might also consider giving this a try.
  7. If you don’t feel like hugging yourself, try stroking your forearms or upper shoulders in a soothing way, similar to a gentle massage.

It’s also totally OK to talk to yourself

A few words of encouragement can help you get even more benefits out of self-hugging.

While hugging yourself, focus on kind, loving thoughts, and direct them inward. Just holding positive messages in your mind can help improve your mood, but saying them out loud can increase their power.

To get a better idea of some helpful phrases, imagine what a loved one might say while hugging you:

  • “You’ll make it through this.”
  • “This won’t last forever.”
  • “You’ve got this.”
  • “I’m so proud of you.”
  • “You’re so strong.”
  • “You’re doing the best you can.”
  • “I love you.”

It might sound silly to say you love yourself, but think of this as the ultimate form of positive self-talk. Getting in the habit of saying “I love you” to yourself can increase feelings of self-worth and self-confidence, boosting positivity and inner strength.

The key is to not let negative judgment or criticism creep in. Take a few moments for self-love, and self-love only.

Other self-love exercises to try

Hugging yourself isn’t the only way you can show yourself some love. The self-love exercises below can help improve your mood and boost feelings of optimism and positivity.

Mindfulness meditation

It can take some time to get into the habit of regular meditation, but once you get started, you’ll likely notice an impact on your well-being.

Meditation can help relieve stress, improve your sleep, and increase positive feelings toward other people as well as yourself. It also helps increase your awareness of your mood, your thoughts, and the things happening around you.

Try a loving-kindness meditation to send love to yourself or anyone else in your life.

Or, do a quick body scan meditation can help you check in with your physical experience.

Learn more about different meditations.

Enjoy nature

Spending just 2 hours each week in a natural setting can help improve mood and general wellness, research suggests.

A change of scenery can have huge benefits for your state of mind, especially if you’ve been spending a lot of time at home lately.

Try visiting a park, beach, forest, or riverside. Since exercise can also help you show your body some love, double up by gardening or going for a walk.

Bonus: The warmth of the sun can sometimes feel like a hug, too.

Make your favorite meal

Enjoying your favorite foods can also help trigger oxytocin production, which can help feelings of self-love flourish.

Eating nourishing food isn’t just a way to treat yourself, either. It also helps you show love for your body.

Cooking a favorite dish, or preparing something completely new, can also help fill up free time and distract you from unwanted thoughts when you’re feeling down.

Once your meal is ready, practice mindful eating to savor every bite.

Live with intention

Setting intentions can help you practice self-love because they can increase your sense of purpose in life and help you live more mindfully.

An intention looks a little like a goal, but it’s more specific to your life right now.

For example:

  • I intend to practice optimism today.
  • I intend to keep an open mind.
  • I intend to notice the things that bring me joy.

Jot down your intentions in your journal, or anywhere else — notes on your mirror, refrigerator, or bulletin board also work well — and look back over them whenever you want to feel more focused.

The bottom line

Most people need positive touch in order to thrive. Touch starvation, or going without for too long, can contribute to anxietydepression, and other emotional distress.

It’s not always possible to get the human contact you’re craving, so you might cuddle a pet, connect with loved ones over video chat, or practice your favorite type of self-care instead.

A little self-love can help, too, so don’t be afraid to give yourself a hug when you need it.

Originally published on Healthline June 16, 2020. Written by Crystal Raypole. Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD. Republished with permission.

Photo credit: Westend61/Getty Images