As restrictions lift, perhaps we’ll have learned to hug each other tighter

For many the ‘hug famine’ occasioned by lockdown has negatively affected mood. JOANNE SAVAGE reports

Friday, 14th May 2021, 8:00 am
As restrictions lift we can finally hug again. Praise be.

What is life without hugs? Hugs with a partner, your child, even the spontaneous kind of gin-sodden embrace with your best friend that makes your heart warm and fuzzy, or the kind that communicates the outsize affection you feel for an elderly relative. Hugs don’t just feel good, hugs can be awesome, supernova-glowing exchanges of unalloyed love, wondrous, sometimes magical, life-changing, life-saving, even, because without touch we become disconnected from others, alienated and stressed, more prone to depression and anxiety in the midst of physical isolation. We cannot live without touch. Never trust anyone who isn’t a good hugger or huggee because it suggests they are warped in their heart and soul. In my view, hugs make the world go round, actually. It isn’t simply children who need the emotional bonding occasioned by hugs, adults starved of such affection will inch ever closer to despair.

And it’s not just humans who can become damaged by the lack of hugs and closeness with the social other, nesting mammals, say experts, need physical contact to grow properly.

No wonder. A hug can make you feel that your burdens and sorrow are shared by someone else, taking some of the weight from your shoulders and reducing feel-good chemicals in the brain such as serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine while reducing cortisol, the primary stress hormone.

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But Covid has left us with a weird dispensation in which impromptu hugging is now loaded with danger, the threat of infection, disease spread and death.

This week Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people, as restrictions lift in England, to practice what he calls ‘cautious hugging’. Cautious hugging? What can this mean, exactly? Don’t hug anyone until you’ve taken their temperature with a thermometer or looked at their vaccine confirmation card?

“Whoever I hug, I can assure you, it will be done with caution and restraint,” Johnson said.

Is it possible to ‘cautiously’ hug someone? Really? The concept, like so many of Johnson’s policies, is ludicrous. A hug is a hug is a hug.

It’s incredible how this virus has imperilled interpersonal touch and by threatening proximity to those outside our nuclear bubble of select family members and friends, put the ethos of community itself at risk, even while paradoxically we are all in this nightmare together, connected mostly by mobile phones, apps and Zoom. Covid presents a threat to the cohesion of the social fabric, even as we pull together to tackle the virus, we are pulled apart by restrictions and social distancing. Now where we might have embraced strangers we touch elbows. It’s not the same, and hug deprivation leaves an emotional and psychological toll that is very real.

The First and Deputy First Ministers are now tentatively lifting the de facto hug ban, and what a relief that is.

Professor Siobhan O’Neill at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland’s interim Mental Health Champion, acknowledges the importance of hugs and affection in preserving mental and emotional health.

She said: “Touch is essential for emotional regulation and releases chemicals to soothe the stress response, so it’s ironic that we are deprived of this right now.

“Babies will not thrive if they are not touched, it literally sets up neural pathways that are key to survival.

“Hugging is a risk at the minute so we need to find other ways to connect and mimic the feeling we get from a hug, say through massage, heat, soft fabric and connecting online whilst enjoying a cup of tea or watching a moving TV show together (but apart) will help us feel connected too.

“People are finding new fun ways to convey their respect and gratitude, for example through special waves, bowing, toe taps or elbow bumps. Perhaps Covid will change how we connect in the longer term?”

Since the start of the first lockdown, I, like many others was locked off from affection and I missed the groundedness that only connection with another human body can bring. As soon as I was unable to hug anybody, I wanted to hug everyone. Many of us felt that ache.

As most of my friends were ensconced at home with partners and children, I was never more aware of my single, isolated status, and it seems little consideration has been given at a governmental level for those enduring lockdown alone, perhaps with only the emotional sustenance provided by a cat or dog and intermittent Google hangouts with friends.

The need for touch is primal and hard-wired beneath the surface of consciousness. Before birth, as we are suspended in the amniotic fluid that swirls around us, our bodies are cradled in the womb; from the beginning our concept of self is rooted in touch.

“The human body has built all its models based on touch received from caregivers,” says Dr Katerina Fotopoulou, a professor of psychodynamic neuroscience at University College London speaking to the Guardian. “We’re utterly reliant on the caregiver to satisfy the body’s core needs. Little can be done without touch.

“Lots of studies support the theory that touch gives the brain a signal that it can delegate its resources for coping because someone else is there to bear the brunt. This relaxes the body, going some way to restoring the stress budget, if you like,”

As adults, we may not comprehend the importance of touch even when it disappears. “We might begin to realise that something is missing, but we won’t always know that it’s touch,” says Professor Francis McGlone, a neuroscientist based at Liverpool John Moores University. “But when we talk about the problem of loneliness, we often ignore the obvious: what lonely people aren’t getting is touch.”

McGlone has been studying this since 1995, when it was discovered that “neurons, in the skin of all social mammals, transmit slow electrical signals to the emotional processing parts of the brain. They play a critical role in developing the social brain and our ability to withstand stress.”

“Touch is a modulator that can temper the effects of stress and pain, physical and emotional. A lack of touch is associated with greater anxiety,” says Fotopoulou. “In times of high stress – the loss of a job, or a bereavement, for example – having more touch from others helps us cope better, particularly in calming the effects of [the stress hormone] cortisol.”

Of the 40,000 people from 112 countries who took part in a 2020 BBC and Wellcome Collection survey, the three most common words used to describe touch were: “comforting”, “warm” and “love”; these are sensations we need to live. It is against human nature to cross the street to avoid social contact or to refrain from impulsively hugging friends and family at parties, gigs, dinner parties, Christenings and weddings. Yet Covid has made the free expression of affection among those close to us a case of risk; the hug has been weaponised in an age when an embrace is an opportunity whereby transactional intimacy with those outside our bubble is burdened with the possibility that our shared closeness may lead to the ever greater dissemination of Covid.

Where we once longed to wrap arms around friends at gigs, concerts or cinema dates, we now fear the infection-loaded arena of massed crowds, clasped hands and hugs. These are times of hug rationing and virtual connectivity is no real substitute. For those unable to find a decent hugger or huggee, it’s said by researchers that weighted blankets can help as well as interacting with animals or experiencing ‘vicarious touch’ by watching affectionate displays in our favourite soap opera say. And when all restrictions are fully removed, perhaps we will have learned to hug each other tighter and more frequently.