Lauren Perez, LCSW

“It’s hug time!!!”

If you have children, you are probably very familiar with that declaration. The film Trolls came out in 2016 and until the end of 2018, I had been very successful in sidestepping that movie. I always knew it had a positive message, but I couldn’t get past how annoying Poppy’s voice was.

Thus, I avoided it.

Don’t judge me.

But one day, my daughter asked me to watch the film with her. She really enjoys the singing, dancing and the overall look of the film. Her joy is always enough for me to put personal bias aside so, I said yes. Luckily, having 3 children has allowed me to really sharpen the skill of “the tune out.” I can sit in the booth of a crowded Chuck E. Cheese on Saturday afternoon, reading a book and not hear a sound.

It truly is a gift.

We make popcorn, get comfortable and start the movie. To my own amazement, I got into this movie very quickly. It’s visually stunning, bright bold colors, the look of the characters and the thoughtful dialogue caught my attention. The message of the movie was far more constructive and enchanting than I originally anticipated and really resonated with me as a clinical counselor.

Working with suicidal children and adolescents is one of my specialty areas. In doing crisis evaluations and assessing a youth’s protective factors, one of the questions we ask is “Do you get at least 4 hugs a day?” This question is rarely met with any resistance when directed toward the person in crisis; their parents, unfortunately, ask, “how is this relevant?” It is relevant because of how mood and brain function together. One of the many contributing factors to difficulties in mental health is the brain’s chemistry and inability to make effective use of neurotransmitters. If the brain’s ability to receive the neuron-to-neuron messages becomes compromised, we may have a person who is hyper-sensitive to the transmission of situational emotions (a person in a depressed state) or insensitive to the transmission of situational emotions (a person in a manic state). The response to those emotions is also compromised and can be excessive or restricted.

If someone we care about has great news and we want to congratulate them, we hug them.

If someone we care about is struggling, we offer a hug as comfort or a gentle touch on the arm or leg. This isn’t true for all but is for a significant percentage of the population.

Physical touch has de-escalating capabilities, and this is in part because of the hormone oxytocin. This is also known as “the love drug.” It naturally occurs in the brain and has the power to lower blood pressure, lower the stress hormone known as cortisol and increase social connectedness. All are pivotal in a person’s ability to manage or avoid severe feelings of hopelessness. Consequently, if a suicidal person isn’t getting hugs and physical showings of affection from friends or family; how can anyone expect that person to feel connected enough to feel fulfilled in their life?

One of my favorite characters in the film is Branch – when we first meet him, he’s a grumpy, sarcastic, killjoy who hates hugs, hates happiness and is continuously silencing the rest of the communities outward showings of elation, for fear they would be discovered by The Bergan; the troll-eating monsters who claim to only experience true happiness if they eat a troll (the topic of an entire blog post in itself). Initially, we don’t understand why he is this way; he’s the only troll in the community with a bad attitude in spite of the group trauma they have all experienced. He’s a total bummer. We later learn that his grandmother was taken in front of him; died saving his life. He always blamed himself for her death and swore off joy as he believed his joy lead to her demise. Really conflated stuff, but makes sense given how little he is at the time of the trauma. Branch actively refuses to sing, avoids hug time and screams bloody murder when the community tries to include him in hug time. It is only after engaging in a trauma narrative with Poppy, that he is able to process the pain he’s experienced. We see our first clinical breakthrough with Branch–he doesn’t resist the hug. This movie is full of endearing and insightful moments like this. Honestly, if you haven’t seen it yet, please do. You won’t regret it.

If you are having a hard time and are experiencing difficulty with your mood or ability to express emotions, think about how many hugs you get a day. If you aren’t a fan of hugs, think of another show of affection you are comfortable with receiving.

Do you have someone in your life whom you can share this with? If so, ask them to fill that emotional bucket for you. No shame in asking for something you need.

If you don’t have someone, schedule an appointment with me and we can work through this void together. Everyone deserves to be happy. Sometimes, you just need a little help finding it.

Be well.