How mindful hugs boost closeness and well-being

To live mindfully, we must be present to our living, breathing loved ones beside us in this moment.

Our lives are comprised of a million tiny moments, one after another. Some we remember, but most we do not because they seem to fly by without our even realizing it. We go through much of our day with our mind in “autopilot,” carrying out activities and habits without thinking. Before we know it, hours, weeks, or even months can pass us by.

Similarly, we can also fall into autopilot with our close relationships. Conversations, activities, gestures, and intimacy become rote, scripted, without much thought or full participation in the moment. We aren’t really feeling that hug or kiss; we aren’t really listening actively. With time, we can grow distant from our partners. We can take their presence for granted. Our mind may drift to and focus on other things, even mid-conversation with our partner. Eventually, we become less satisfied and feel less close to the other person than we once did.

But when we live mindfully and intentionally, we recognize that every small moment is an opportunity to fully experience what it is to be alive. Luckily, we can take small steps to infuse moments in our day with the practice of mindfulness. An easy option to improve your mood and your relationship? A mindful hug.

Though it sounds too small (or even silly) to be consequential, much scientific evidence points to the importance of physical touch to humans’ physical and emotional well-being. From the time we are born, we form attachments through touch, mostly through the role of the “bonding” hormone oxytocin. We evolved to connect with others and to feel safe and supported, which touch conveys; as a result, more oxytocin helps us develop to have stronger immune systems and to be more resilient to stress. Experiments have shown that women hugged by their husbands exhibit clear decreases in blood pressure and heart rate, and touch between spouses has been shown to downregulate the “threat system” in our brains, decreasing the stress response and promoting a sense of well-being. 

Does the idea of mindfully hugging feel awkward or give you concern about being rejected? New research actually suggests that daily physical touch can be most beneficial to adults with anxious attachment styles, meaning those of us who fear we will be abandoned or are not truly loved (Carmichael, Goldberg, & Coyle, 2020). If physical touch has not been part of the relationship for a while, you may benefit from working up to a full embrace, opting to sit closely on the couch, hold hands, or massage your partner’s shoulders.

How to hug mindfully
A longer hug gives you more opportunity to practice mindful awareness. Ensure your partner knows beforehand it will be a longer, lingering hug (so they don’t stiffen or pull away too quickly). If you naturally have long hugs, great! If not, you may need to request one. You can choose to share your intentions with your partner so they may join you, or you can keep this to yourself.

While in the embrace, try the following tips to pay mindful attention:

  • Engage your sense of touch. Notice the warmth of your partner’s body, the solidity of their chest or back against your arms, the texture of their clothing or softness of their skin. Maybe you can feel their heartbeat. Observe the sensations of your partner’s arms around you. Allow yourself to soften and melt into the other person’s body, attending fully to this moment. Imagine you are not two separate bodies, but one collective unit.
  • Notice any difference in your heights and how this shapes the experience. Maybe you are shorter than your partner and feel protected in their arms. Maybe you are the taller one and feel the sense of holding and protecting your partner. Observe without judgment how each of your bodies align and where they contact.
  • Notice the familiar smell of your partner’s body and clothing. What are the characteristics of the smells? Sharp, faint, sweet, or earthy? Without judgment, notice what sensations arise in the moment. Allow the comfort of familiarity to sink in. 
  • Resist your mind’s temptation to drift off to past memories of this partner, or other relationships, or even unrelated topics. Gently guide your attention to this person you are embracing exactly as they are today, in this moment. Recognize that through so many experiences and change, you continue to share your lives and hearts.
  • Take a moment of gratitude for the gift that is a hug. Allow your heart, mind, and body to appreciate this act of affection, this sign that there is someone in your life who loves you and is alongside you in your journey. Let go of any negative emotions or baggage, just for the moment, and sit in this moment of contentment.

Life is complicated, and relationships are, too. It’s easy for us to let our mind dwell on past hurts or worry about the future of our partnership. We can forget that right here, in real time, the person we love is in front of us. To live mindfully, we must be present to our living, breathing loved ones beside us in this moment.

Small, mindful moments add up to beautiful outcomes. Next time you have the opportunity to embrace your partner, make it mindful. Savor it. You and your partner both will likely notice the difference.

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