Finish the Stress Cycle for Better Sleep
A professional sleep coach describes how to let your body know that it’s time for rest.
Physical touch as a show of affection or comfort is nearly universal. Certainly, humans cuddle, but so do many other animals, including most mammals and birds. Even bees pile onto each other for warmth and camaraderie. Since animals don’t engage in performative behavior, snuggling up together this way must have a deeper meaning, right?
As it turns out, the drive to give and receive physical touch is more than just a desire for closeness—it’s key to our very survival. Studies have shown that babies deprived of physical touch fail to thrive and that patients recovering from injury or illness heal faster if they consistently receive hugs or have a hand to hold.
[Read: “The Science of Touch.”]
Not only does cuddling keep us warmer in cold weather and deepen our bonds with one another, it strengthens our mental and physical health and eases stress through a number of physiological responses. For instance, when we’re experiencing high stress levels, our bodies release the hormone cortisol to help keep us going. This often results in higher blood pressure and increased heart rate for long periods of time, making it difficult to relax.
Cuddling can reduce cortisol in the body and help us relax by triggering the brain to release the well-known feel-good hormones oxytocin and serotonin. It also stimulates the vagus nerve, which is a biological superhighway that, when activated, communicates to the body that it’s safe to relax and rest, which is key to maintaining overall health.
[Read: “Befriending the Vagus Nerve.”]
Depending on your comfort level, you can try these with a partner, friend, family member, or even your pet.
You know this one. It’s when someone you love hugs you super close and tight and you can barely breathe...but in a good way.
Bear hugs are fantastic for when you feel out of sorts and just need a quick pick-me-up in terms of affection. Don’t be afraid to ask those close to you for a bear hug—they might need it as much as you do!
This technique is good for alleviating overwhelming or long-term stress, as it provides a lot of contact points between you and your fellow cuddler. Spooning is also typically done in a reclining position, so you can maintain the cuddle for as long as you like.
Usually, one person (big spoon) will lie or recline on their side, and wrap their arms around another person (little spoon), who will snuggle their back into big spoon’s chest. Though often reserved for romantic partners, spooning can be a totally platonic activity.
Make sure you take turns playing the big and little spoons!
This cuddling technique is when one person drapes the full weight of their body over another person, usually while both are lying down. This provides deep-touch pressure therapy all over the body and can help activate the vagus nerve very quickly.
This is a particularly good cuddle technique if you have pets. My cat never hesitated to drape his hefty little body over me to give me comfort. It helped that he was a champion purrer, given that cats purr at a healing frequency as a way to soothe themselves and their colony-mates.
Of course, you can also do this with your dog, or a trusted human (though neither of them is likely to purr).
Sometimes, to get out of your head, it helps to be reminded that you have a physical body and occupy space in the world.
With a friend, try gently chafing or pat your hands over each other’s limbs, backs, shoulders, and bellies through a light layer of clothing to help you focus. This not only releases feel-good hormones into the bloodstream, it also aids circulation and helps us feel energized.
You can also easily do this technique yourself by applying lotion to your body or patting your own limbs through your clothes.
[Read: “Ayurvedic Abhyanga: The Benefits of Self-Massage.”]
If you live alone, or simply don’t enjoy physical contact with others, a weighted blanket is a fantastic alternative. These blankets simulate the deep touch pressure we’d get from cuddling and produces very similar results.
Weighted blankets are now available in many different weights, colors, styles, and fabrics. Simply choose a blanket about one-tenth of your body weight in a style you like and lie underneath it for about 10 to 20 minutes at a time until your body is used to the new sensation.
From there, you can replicate several of the above techniques with the blanket. Get a bear hug by wrapping it tightly around your shoulders and torso, spoon a body pillow while lying under it, or simply lie prone and drape it from collar bone to ankles.
Experiencing cuddle deprivation? Here are four ways to incorporate more touch into your day.
Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.