10 Health Benefits of Cuddling and How to Do It
Cuddling, which includes hugging, snuggling, and (sometimes) kissing, can provide comfort and support during times of stress. These are the benefits of cuddling, plus, tips on how to cuddle.
Understanding why people cuddle
Here’s a casualty of Covid-19 that’s gone unnoticed: touching and, for that matter, being touched.
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 (more on that later). 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, 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.
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.
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. Here are the different types of stress and how to deal with them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How to cuddle
Cuddling is very individual and the type of physical touch, the duration, the frequency, and other variables will differ from person to person, Romanoff says. Here’s how to find the sweet spot.
Start with talking
The best thing you can do is to be vocal about your cuddling needs and preferences and listen to those of your cuddle buddy, Dr. Velikova says. There’s not necessarily a wrong way to do it but avoid touching people without their consent, being aggressive, or tickling, she says.
For people who aren’t “fully comfortable with physical touch and are not accustomed to either providing or receiving physical affection, it’s important to start slow both in the quantity and quality of physical contact,” Romanoff says.
Always begin by getting their consent before touching. And then start with a neutral position, like holding hands or reading side by side, she says. “Even minor physical contact can be beneficial to both of you.”
Don’t force it
If cuddling isn’t for you, don’t force it. “Need for physical affection is highly variable,” Romanoff says. “And while there are noteworthy benefits, none overshadow personal preference.”
A lot of your preference for touch relates to how you were raised. Early experiences with caregivers create strong neural pathways, she says.
“While many have positive associations with touch—such as love, security, protection—others may feel uncomfortable with the foreign quality of expression and connectedness.”
Changing the amount or type of touch should come from the receiver and never be forced by the giver, she adds.
Use physical affection for many different purposes
For some people, physical touch is correlated only with sex. But touch, at its core, shouldn’t be a sexual thing. You can use a hug or pat on the shoulder or holding hands to show gratitude, approval, affection, trust, and other positive, non-romantic feelings.
“Because cuddling can enhance both feelings of vulnerability and safety, make sure you’re not raising your partner’s defenses,” Romanoff says.
Try different types of cuddling
There’s no one way to cuddle. It can be lying in bed, spooning, but it can also include other types of loving touches, Romanoff says.
Foot rubs, head rubs, back rubs, hand-holding, laying your head on your partner’s chest, lap sitting, and sitting side-by-side on the couch touching legs all count. There are even a variety of different types of hugs.
Take the time to find out what you like, what your partner likes, and what your friends and loved ones enjoy. “Learn to speak their physical love language,” she says.
Snuggle your kids
Appropriate cuddling between parents and kids is essential to development, teaches kids about good physical boundaries, and helps form a tight, loving bond.
“Parents need to hold their kids in their arms,” Dr. Velikova says. “Even a gentle pat on the hand or forehead can do wonders. While doing it, say something loving to increase your kids’ sense of security and warmth.”
Get a furry snuggle buddy
Pets are awesome cuddling partners. There’s a reason why therapy animals exist—just petting and loving animals can help you feel better. This can be especially helpful for people who don’t have a human companion to cuddle with.
- James Córdova, PhD, psychology professor and clinical psychologist who directs the Center for Couples and Family Research at Clark University.
- Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health, in New York City
- Lina Velikova, MD, PhD, an immunologist, researcher, an assistant professor at Sofia University in Bulgaria, and medical advisor for Supplements101
- Goldsmiths University of London: "The Touch Test"
- PLOS One: "Receiving a hug is associated with the attenuation of negative mood that occurs on days with interpersonal conflict"
- PNAS: "Brain-to-brain coupling during handholding is associated with pain reduction"
- Psychological Science: "Does Hugging Provide Stress-Buffering Social Support? A Study of Susceptibility to Upper Respiratory Infection and Illness"
- Personality and Individual Differences: "Affection mediates the impact of alexithymia on relationships"