Monday, December 13, 2010

Have you hugged anyone lately?

You may laugh off the predilection of the psychiatry community in the USA for coining names such as dance or walk therapies, which are based, on pure common sense or on practices that have always been around in various cultures. But then you may feel like giving them a hug. For by calling it a therapy, giving it a name, and ardently promoting it, they often manage to create awareness about a healthy and wholesome habit that is endangered by the bustle of modern life. Hug therapy is a typical example.

Big deal, you say, when you hear the term for the first time. But try to recollect the last time you hugged somebody or somebody hugged you. In all likelihood, it was too long ago. Worse, the answer may be 'never' if you are the kind who flinches from physical contact.

So what are we missing out on?

Reaching out and touching someone, and holding him tight—is a way of saying you care. Its effects are immediate: for both, the hugger and the person being hugged, feel good. Touch is an important component of attachment as it creates bonds between two individuals. Hugging is simply a natural expression of showing that you love and care.

"Cuddling and caressing make the growing child feel secure and is known to aid in self-esteem," agrees Dr Bhagat, a psychiatrist. The tactile sense is all-important in infants. A baby recognizes its parents initially by touch. Malkani points out cultural variations pertaining to hugging: in the West, hugging a friend of the opposite sex is common, while in the East you see more physical contact between friends of the same sex.

Hugging comes naturally to Kajal Basu,a journalist. "It loosens you up and breaks the bonds of body as well as of society. The more ritualistic ways of greeting people, handshakes and namastes, are designed to keep us apart rather than bring us together," he argues.

R. Chandran, a reiki master based in Mumbai, India, says that hugging is a tool of transformation. "Hugging brings people closer to each other. If your relationship with somebody is not working, try hugging him 20 times a day and there will be a significant difference," he guarantees. Comparing hugging to reiki , the currently popular touch therapy based on the transfer of energy, he says the area of touch is much larger in the case of hugging and the contact is much more intimate, so the effects are subtler.

Touch has come full circle in the West this century. Time was when parents and hospitals were advised to leave a crying baby alone. Today the pediatricians and psychologists tell us to pick up and cuddle our children. Toys, even teddy bears, whose use has been increasing in the recent decades, are a poor substitute for the human contact needed by children.

Hugging is being used even as an aid in treating some physical illnesses, following research that it leads to certain positive physiological changes. For example, touch stimulates nerve endings, thereby helping in relieving pain . It is thus not uncommon for a chronic pain patient to be prescribed "Therapeutic touch" which involves placing the hands on or just above the troubled area in the patient's body for half-an-hour (shades of reiki). This pushes up the hemoglobin levels in the blood, increasing the delivery of blood to tissues, a study at the nursing department of New York University showed. Some nurses' associations in the USA have since endorsed therapeutic touch.

Any health problem makes the sufferer feel vulnerable, frightened, angry, frustrated and helpless. The patient usually needs to educate himself to make certain life changes. Hugging can give him the positive emotional state necessary to make these changes. In one study, pet ownership was seen to contribute to the survival of heart patients. The inference: the cuddling of pets has a soothing effect that reduces the stress levels in heart attack victims. 

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