Hugs lift our mood, so why do they still feel so awkward?

"Hug therapy is about focusing on the
energies in the body and working with those to learn self-love.”
"Hug therapy is about focusing on the energies in the body and working with those to learn self-love.” Photo: Getty Images

Walking in to hug therapy, I brace myself for a hug from a stranger. I'm quickly proven wrong. The room isn't filled with incense and the therapist isn't dressed in flares. She doesn't envelope me in a spine-crushing hug. In fact, she welcomes me only with warm eyes, a tender handshake and a kind smile.

While hug therapy may sound like something from the 1970s, it's actually growing in popularity as its benefits become better understood.

Studies have shown that hugging improves the immune system and heart health, decreases stress and anxiety and improves communication. Hugging also increases happiness.

One study found that the positive benefits of the feel-good hormone oxytocin were strongest in women who frequently hugged their partner.

Hug therapist Shirley Ann Lawler initially asks me to rank my comfort in hugging different people on a scale of one to 10 (10 being the most comfortable). My sons rank a 10. My close friends rank a seven. My husband ranks a five.

"Women sometimes rank their husbands lower because of the association of hugging with sex," Lawler tells me. "Women often want the hug, but not the sex. They don't know how to separate the two, so they avoid touch altogether."

I respond by nodding manically. "Touching more frequently outside the bedroom is a good start," she advises. "As you both learn to disassociate touch with sex, the expectation and pressure are removed. You'll find that you start to hug more."

Lots of hugging was what I thought Lawler's session would be about. However, unlike cuddle therapy, which she tells me is purely that, hug therapy is different.

"If someone only wants to be held, then I'll oblige," she says. "But hug therapy is about focusing on the energies in the body and working with those to learn self-love."

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It's what she teaches me next. I cradle the right side of my face gently in my right hand. My thumb rests on the bottom of my ear, my forefinger touches the top. My two middle fingers rest on my temple and my little finger touches the edge of my eye.

As my left arm wraps itself around my body, I close my eyes and continue to breathe. I'm practising a self-hug.

I feel my body slump as the tension lifts from my shoulders and I sink into the chair with my breath. For a moment, I'm the only one present.

"Today, we don't take time to self-hug and self-love," says Lawler. "If we can learn to do it more, then hugging and loving others may come easier, too." As the session ends, Lawler tells me that, to be mentally and physically beneficial, a hug should last 20 seconds. The average hug lasts only three.

Then, with a smile, she asks the inevitable: "Would you like a hug?" I wrap my arms awkwardly around Lawler, fighting the grimace on my face and the tension in my body. I feel wooden and uncomfortable. The silence is deafening. As she nestles into my neck, I tense even more. After 10 seconds, which feel like 10 minutes, I pull away.

My second attempt is not much better. I feel a little less tense but I'm still not fully relaxed, rapidly counting the seconds to 20 and trying to divert my brain elsewhere. When Lawler offers a third hug, I politely decline.

Since the session, I've made a conscious effort to hug my husband more as well as be kinder to myself. I'm embracing the change, holding it close and cosying up with more love. Turns out, it's not so bad after all.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale February 10.

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