It’s a strange world we are currently living in. Stranger than normal. The strangest part for me is the thing I didn’t think I would miss – hugs. Physical interaction in general. A tap on the shoulder or a drunken group hug after a night out. I haven’t been the only one feeling the absence of human interaction in the last few months; there has been a cry throughout the world for hugs and human touch.
So why do we miss it? There is actually some science behind it. We need hugs to function in day to day life. Johannes Eichstaedt, a Social psychology professor at Stanford University said that ‘“Affectionate touch is how our biological systems communicate to one another that we are safe, that we are loved, and that we are not alone”. When we hug the chemical oxytocin is released which is a hormone that is known to help bonding in romantic partnerships, social groups, and is vital in creating strong relationships between children and their caregivers. Additionally, when you are producing oxytocin you are less likely to be feeling high levels of stress, which in turn can help maintain a strong immune system. Studies have shown that those in social conflicts – where hugging probably isn’t going to be happening as often as usual – have a harder time fighting off viruses.
So it only makes sense that during a pandemic when we are in limited social environments, potentially only living with a few people or no one at all, that we are feeling the effects of touch deprivation. Obviously, I completely understand why social distancing is important in breaking the chains of infection in social groups, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to acknowledge how the effects of such deprivation is making us feel and potentially how it is affecting our mental health. Devita Streva, a social worker and psychotherapist, said that missing hugging our friends and family is a completely natural human response as ‘touch is a legitimate physical and emotional need’.
I’m not totally sure when we will have the freedom to give a long consensual hug again, but personally, I hope it isn’t too far off in the horizon. In the meantime, FaceTime friends and family, by seeing facial expressions we are far more likely to reap the benefits of social connection. Try and hug who you can, when you can. If you are in a bubble or a household try to make hugging a regular part of your day, be that a congratulatory hug for surviving a Teams call or a hug before you head off to sleep. Although a lack of hugs might seem like the least pressing thing happening in 2020, it doesn’t make the impact on our physical and mental health any less. Hugs won’t fix a pandemic, but they might help a little – when done safely.