Did you know that our skin is our largest organ? I remember hearing that in middle school biology and staring down at myself. There was so much skin. I never felt more exposed and vulnerable.
There’ve been many more times where I’ve felt exposed and vulnerable. Usually it involved my anxiety. Sometimes it felt like it was swallowing me whole. I’d try to curl up to protect my exposed self. I knew a panic attack was coming if I didn’t do something about it. Sometimes I tried to read to distract myself; other times I walked around to get the energy out. Most of the time, I’d ask my mom to sit with me. Even as an adult, my mom is a huge sense of comfort. Even just sitting side by side, holding hands and not talking, has always helped.
While I’ve personally always felt the power in hugs, I had no idea there was a physiological explanation to it. Skin has little receptors that take in everything from the slightest breeze to a cut in the skin. So, when we hold someone’s hand or hug them, we feel every bit of them and our brains react.
When we reach out, a chemical called oxytocin — also dubbed the “love hormone” — kicks in and makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside. The effects of a warm embrace can linger long after the hug: Oxytocin promotes feelings of trust, nurturing, and calm. A hug can even improve your physiological stability. Now that’s some powerful stuff!
So, now you know there’s power in hugs, but it doesn’t stop there. There’s a phenomenon known as skin hunger, which further explains why we’re wired to respond positively to hugs and to touch overall. If you’ve ever felt that inexplicable longing and desire to be physically close to someone — much like I always have with my mom — you know about skin hunger.
From the moment we’re born, we want to feel close to another warm body. These feelings are amplified in times when we’re stressed and feeling very vulnerable. Skin hunger explains why premature babies — like my twin nephews, who were born six weeks early at around three pounds each —
Once so small laying upon my sister and her husband’s bare chests, my nephews are now almost 3 years old. They’re so full of energy and attached to their parents. While a million other things contributed to this closeness, I can’t help but assume that their early days of cuddling with Mom and Dad helped. Needless to say, I’m a believer in the healing powers of touch, having experienced them myself and seen them at work with my nephews.
When people we care about are in pain — whether physical, emotional, or mental — it’s hard to know what to do. I, myself, have felt helpless as I watch someone I love struggle through something. Without thinking twice, I hug them with all my might. In situations of uncertainty, I’ve offered a supported pat on the shoulders. In my own vulnerable moments, it makes perfect sense that my skin hunger takes over and I recall fond memories of my mom comforting me.
Hugs are powerful. Touch is healing. Now, you know.
Erynn Porter has chronic illness, but that didn’t stop her from getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the New Hampshire Institute of Art. She’s currently assistant editor for Quail Bell Magazine along with being a book reviewer for Chicago Review of Books and Electric Literature. She’s been published or work is forthcoming in Bust, ROAR, Entropy, Brooklyn Mag, and Ravishly. You can often find her eating candy while editing her own work; she claims that candy is the perfect editing food. When Erynn isn’t editing, she’s reading with a cat curled up beside her.