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Cuddle Time II: The Oxytocin Commotion

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Published in the Humboldt Independent on June 8, 2021

Cuddling is one of the first things most humans get to experience. Shortly after arriving on the planet, we are delivered to mom and dad’s arms, where we will continue to spend a great deal of time as we grow and develop, being doted on and snuggled and spoiled rotten. Highly dependent as we are on the attentions of our dear mothers, we have evolved to be almost universally cute and charming as babies, a fact that has helped us survive through infancy despite our less charming byproducts. The natural inclination of a new human to seek a physical bond for protection continues even after we become less portable, and physical closeness with parents and siblings remains a crucial part of childhood development. While different cultures and individuals maintain different levels of physical connection between peers, friends, family members, and spouses, physical contact with our loved ones forms part of the core of our emotional experience as humans.

Our brain handles being touched by another person through two separate systems: the somatosensory cortex, which tells us where and how we are being touched, and a completely separate system within the posterior insula which tells us what the different kinds of touch mean on an emotional level. Positive touch experiences, including hugging and cuddling, cause the hypothalamus to produce oxytocin, a chemical which relaxes us and makes us more empathic. The presence of oxytocin in turn causes the brain to release dopamine, reinforcing the positive touch response and causing us to remember how nice cuddling is.

Benefits of cuddling

The oxytocin released from prolonged physical contact facilitates bonding and trust on a chemical level.

Cuddling encourages healthy sleep patterns and can reduce physical discomfort, stress, and anxiety. The oxytocin released from prolonged physical contact facilitates bonding and trust on a chemical level, and even among friends and acquaintances, handshakes and hugs are almost cultural universals which tap into the fundamental importance of touch to the social human experience. While we have leaned heavily on language as a species, we share a great deal in common with other gregarious social mammals, and haptic communication, the fancy term for touch-based communication, remains an important part of our identities. We use this type of communication to emotionally connect and relate to each other through touch in times of hardship and celebration alike, and even a hermetic troglodyte like myself has to acknowledge the importance of social behavior to our mental health.

For children, the oxytocin released from cuddling has been linked to an increase in the levels of certain growth hormones, as well as healthy muscular, neurological, and circulatory development and a better grasp on social skills and boundaries. Children who are raised without adequate physical affection and cuddling may suffer prolonged aversion to intimacy or social interaction and may have difficulty forming relationships, romantic or otherwise, as adults. It’s generally recommended to let your children’s natural inclination towards hugging, cuddling, and physical affection blossom, and despite the medieval suggestions of previous generations, being affectionate with your kid is not going to spoil them. That’s grandma’s job.

For those humans fortunate enough to have another human willing to put up with them on the regular, prolonged touch, cuddling, and the subsequent oxytocin bonding have been identified as a critical element in maintaining those intimate relationships at all stages, from the formative to the antique. Plenty of folks aren’t so blessed, however, and there are enough people without a source of physical intimacy in their lives that cuddle therapy has become a viable and lucrative career path. Loneliness, which studies indicate is as statistically deadly as smoking cigarettes, often includes the absence of any meaningful physical touch, and depression has likewise been linked to a lack of physical connection with other humans. And then of course there’s the whole coronavirus reality we’ve been living in for what seems like forever now, where you can’t really hug your old friends or your grandma, and you certainly can’t swoop in for a kiss with that cutie you’ve been chasing, and even if you did, the mask is going to make things even more awkward than usual.

Cuddle already

So: if you’re like countless other overworked and stressed out humans who find themselves too busy to cuddle your kid or your partner, forgive yourself, but stop that crap right now. You’ve got an all-natural psychological panacea on tap that’s ten measly minutes of snuggle away. Make time to bask in the easily exploitable nectar of human brain chemistry for the low, low cost of holding on to something dear to you: your work will improve, your outlook will improve, and your health will improve.

Galen Lastko, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.