The Cost of Going Hugless

I came across this earlier…

“We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”

Virginia Satir

Satir was an author and therapist known for her work in family theory. This appears to be a decades old theory that still seems to hold some sway, as far as I can tell.

I’m of course not a therapist, I never played one on TV, and I haven’t stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. Yet, I do suspect that with most things, the exact numbers may vary individually. I know for some people 4 hugs in a day feels like an overbearing assault. I also know that for others, the idea of going any significant time without physical connection is a terror-inducing prospect.

But it does lead me to a point that is connected to this theory, regardless of how exact it may or may not be. We know that we do have an innate need for physical connection, we have since we were babies. Literally, right from birth. According to an article from Stanford Medical:

Skin-to-skin time in the first hour helps regulate babies’ temperature, heart rate, and breathing, and helps them cry less. It also increases mothers’ relaxation hormones.

If babies are deprived of touch, the consequences are dire. I’ve heard Gabor Mate and many others discuss this, but it’s connected to how there would be high infant mortality rates in orphanages. Quoting an article by Maia Szalavitz in Psychology Today:

But touch is even more vital than this: Babies who are not held, nuzzled, and hugged enough can stop growing, and if the situation lasts long enough, even die.

Researchers discovered this when trying to figure out why some orphanages had infant mortality rates around 30–40%. We now know that orphanages are not suitable places for infants. Babies aged zero to five simply do not receive enough stimulation in group residential care to develop to their full capacity.

Critical here is individualized, physical parental attention. For one, this nurturing is necessary for the brain to learn to connect human contact with pleasure. This association is one of the foundations of empathy: We connect first through soothing touch and shared smiles.

Sadly, babies raised in orphanages often begin to fear touch and avoid it. Without having intensive, repeated, loving contact with the same one or two people, they simply can’t make the proper connections. They don’t get enough repetition with particular people to build in bonding. And that can spell trouble later in life as this early touch helps provide the template for all relationships thereafter.

Whether we’re programmed to carry on without touch or its lack is forced upon us due to our life and social situations, the repercussions continue well through adulthood. It’s been said in a number of places that loneliness can be as much of a health risk as a heavy smoking habit. A condition known as touch starvation can develop and is not a good time. According to Dr. Asim Shah from Baylor College of Medicine:

“When someone is [touch] starved, it’s like someone who is starved for food,” Shah said. “They want to eat, but they can’t. Their psyche and their body want to touch someone, but they can’t do it because of the fear associated with, in this case, the pandemic.”

Touch starvation increases stress, depression and anxiety, triggering a cascade of negative physiological effects. The body releases the hormone cortisol as a response to stress, activating the body’s “flight-or-fight” response. This can increase heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and muscle tension, and can suppress the digestive system and immune system — increasing the risk of infection.

People who are stressed or depressed, perhaps because of lack of touch, will have problems sleeping, Shah said.

“Every single medical disease including heart attack, diabetes, hypertension, asthma — every single physical disease — is altered if you are more anxious, more depressed or if you have more mental health issues,” he said

So yeah, that’s some real issues, and that’s simply from a physical standpoint.

Us humans, despite the kicking and screaming from some, are social beings that require deep, true connection. We need to belong; we need to be seen and understood as we are. If we are cut off from that, our emotional and mental states suffer greatly.

Connection and belonging are basic human needs, just a little ways up the pyramid from food, water, shelter, and safety. Ask Maslow.

And that’s the point that hit me hard when I saw that initial theory from Dr. Satir. Whether the magic hug number is 12 or 8 or 22 isn’t really the point. Being disconnected from that positive physical touch on a regular basis, while damaging in its own right, is part of another deeper concern. How many people are out in the world, whether physically lonely or not, that feel like they are unable to truly connect to their social circles? I say it all the time, there are lonely, hurting people in the middle of crowds, even leading crowds. I’ll insist that it’s a big part of so much of the collective pain that this world is carrying. It’s not everything, nothing is, but it’s certainly a factor in suicides, any addiction you can imagine, in the many forms of violence we are seeing regularly, even in how we interact with each other online and in other spaces.

What else is happening is we’ll take whatever connection we can get, and sometimes people are easily guided into toxic religious and political atmospheres. Cults, conspiracy circles, terrorist organizations of all types, on and on. There is such an intense power of feeling seen and feeling like you belong somewhere, and people will morph into foot soldiers and commit some really messed up stuff if they get swept up in the wrong crowd. It happens all the time.

That’s the point that led me toward feeling all sorts of sadness as I was exploring this. It’s not about whether or not the numbers of hugs is spot on, although it’s honestly fun to debate and watch assorted reactions to it. It’s what is beyond it, how it’s a symptom of how too many of us are disconnected, isolated, unseen, and in some deep pain.

As with everything, it’s an issue that consumes us physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and any other way you can throw on. Truthfully, it’s been a global pandemic since long before we were “officially” in one.

What hurts even more is that collectively, while we tell people to reach out when they’re suffering, and we encourage people to ask for help, often they don’t and if they actually do, we don’t know what to do or we often ignore it (often more related to not knowing what to do rather than a lack of caring-even if it feels like it on the other end).

Maybe it’s just saying, “look, I have no idea what the right thing to do is, but I am willing to try my best” and starting from there. It’s something.

So much healing needs to happen, and it’s not going to happen overnight, and one person or group can’t magically do it all. Maybe it just starts with doing what we can for ourselves and our loved ones and neighbors as best we can as we pick up on any needs. Figuring out what the hell that means as we go along. Starts somewhere, right?

And (when appropriate and with mutual consent, please) allow yourself to give somebody a goddamn hug, because it may be the one thing that shifts their whole day. Or hell, give yourself one, or something that feels good to the touch. Here are some ideas, give something a chance!

Thanks for reading, if you’re interested in more writing and content like this I invite you to support me on Ko-Fi and get first looks and exclusives, among other goodies.

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Rich Levesque

Rich Levesque

Writer. Guide. Mentor. Visionary. Voice. Presence. Geeks out over MCU, Star Wars, baseball, and randomness. Question everything except your worth.