The 20 Second Hug

We’re trying something new at the end of Michelle and Aly’s work day, as they move into the summer tourist season: the 20 second hug.

I caught the tail end of a recent, interesting article on the radio about beating burnout.

Sisters, Emily and Amelia Nagoski, wrote Burnout: The Secret To Unlocking The Stress Cycle. The part of the piece that caught my attention and imagination was their succinct description of how our bodies deal with stress—and what kind of stress we’re built to deal with. According to the authors, that’s lion attacks.

To paraphrase, the sisters said that our bodies were evolved to handle stress, such as being pursued by a predator. They say that stress creates a physical reaction, including a burst of adrenaline, to face that problem (by running away!) and that ideally, it’s a short-term reaction or cycle. The end of the cycle should have been signaled by reaching safety, and, in their view, expressing gratitude toward the person who saved them.

They recommend a 20 second hug as a physical way to signal to a stressed person’s body that the stress cycle is now complete, that the body’s chemistry can “stand down” from the emergency.

So now, when Michelle or Aly come home from a stressful day of work, I try to offer them a 20 second hug. For the few days we’ve tried it, I’ve kept count to make sure we hold the hug for at least 20 seconds (it’s longer than one might imagine). I’m going for the minimum, in other words. Turns out, many hugs in our family last over 20 seconds long. If we keep this up, we’ll stop being so careful about the timing, I’m sure.

Does this do anything? Who knows? But, what can it hurt, right?

Interestingly, when I first discussed this with Michelle, she recalled describing the feeling of entering the forest at the trailhead. She said that it felt like a relief, a homecoming, almost “like a hug” (see Shinrin-Yoku). Perhaps the Nagoski sisters are onto something with their 20 second hug.

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