So You Need A Hug

So You Need A Hug

Neil had just lost his job. He had worked at the local paper company for over 17 years and could not even think of this loss. His work had become an integral part of his entire family life and the focus of all of his friendships. Rebecca, his wife, did not really know what to do so she was just nervous.

She did not do well with stress but with their 6 children she worked twice as hard as he ever did. One day he commented that part of his job was so boring that he had enough time to read his car magazines and dream of buying a sports car. He knew it would never happen so he just imagined himself in the car with the raw acceleration thrill it would afford him. But now he was a complete mess. It wasn’t just losing the job, somehow he felt like his whole world was collapsing. hug

Neil took the temporary job and decided that no longer was the 40-hour workweek going to provide enough. So he kept looking for more work. He was quite stressed out since he had two car payments and a house payment too. These were fixed for years and he had no real answers.

For the first time Rebecca caught him quite vulnerable. He was teary eyed and she gave him a long hug. Neil felt so much better. He hadn’t been hugged like that since he was a little toddler. He remembered his mother would whisk him up and gently hug him after a clumsy fall. The pain from the fall immediately felt better. It was still there, but the longer she held him the better it felt.

Rebecca could sense him relaxing and said it would be ok. They would get some tea and then sit down and work things out. It was the first time in years that she had opened herself up to him. They were so much closer.

In the 1960s two researchers were trying to figure out how pain is felt and developed what is now called the “Gate Theory”. Was the pain felt where it originated or was it in the brain. Why did rubbing your head make the sharp pain of an injury to your head feel better? Why did caressing a body give relief to aches in that same area? And why did some people feel pain much more intensely than others? Pain is a huge subject that is beginning to be understood more and more daily.

Small diameter nerve fibers carry pain stimuli through a ‘gate mechanism’ but larger diameter nerve fibers going through the same gate can inhibit the transmission of the smaller nerves carrying the pain signal. It is unclear why this is so but it does seem to work. The next time you feel pain all over a good hug can help mitigate the sharpness of that bad feeling. When the pain is psychologically induced, like Neil’s, then a hug is all the more important.

Patients who have illnesses that cannot be diagnosed or illnesses that do not respond to the usual treatments are being referred to university medical centers for help.

On the digestive side, the gastroenterologists may admit these “GI” (Gastrointestinal) patients for testing. These tests are often referred to as workups. In one study 100 consecutive GI patients at Duke were worked up and over 39 of them seemed to have a psychiatric source of their illness. In other words, their pain was real and their intestinal tract was malfunctioning but there was no real illness of the GI tract. This meant that 39 of these patients received psychiatric help. They were not crazy…there intestinal tract was just suffering from the stress and it needed to be addressed. Perhaps they needed a hug or to be understood or some dialogue initiated on what was really bothering them in life.

When you have to move your bowels just when you have to leave for school, work, or even to visit an unfriendly in-law….a hug may help relieve the pain. But just like rubbing your head, it helps but the wound is still there and needs attention.

Rebecca hugged Neil and it felt so good. It released hormones like oxytocin. It also stimulated nerves that interfered with the pain fibers from firing so many impulses. But perhaps the biggest consolation was that it let Neil know that he was not alone and that Rebecca would be there to console him whenever things got really tough. That alone makes anyone have the impetus to go on.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine are studying whether the brain hormone released with touches, hugs, or when a mother and her newborn baby bond might help patients with schizophrenia, social anxiety and a variety of other disorders. Oxytocin is a brain chemical associated with pair bonding, The UCSD researchers theorize that use of oxytocin might act on the brains of patients with schizophrenia and anxiety and may ultimately increase the level of trust or emotional contact between patient and physician, or with patients and significant others. According to Kai MacDonald, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSD, people given oxytocin don’t report feeling any different, but they act differently.”

Key points

1. Pain arises from any number of situations. Injury is a major cause, but pain may also arise from an illness. It may accompany a psychological condition, such as depression, or may even occur in the absence of a recognizable trigger.

2. Pain signals traveling via small nerve fibers are allowed to pass through, while signals sent by large nerve fibers are blocked. “Gate control theory” is often used to explain phantom or chronic pain.

3. Physical affection and social bonding stimulate oxytocin, a hormone that turns on dopamine, a natural brain chemical that makes us feel rewarded. When oxytocin is flowing, stress is reduced, blood pressure goes down, mood improves, and pain is more manageable.


R. Melzack, P.D. Wall, “Pain mechanisms: A new theory,” Science, 150:171-9, 1965.

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