The pandemic continues and the social isolation measures remain in place. People are tired of the situation but know it is the only way to prevent the spread of the virus. We have become very creative, we try to shop online, try to enjoy home-cooked meals, play games with our kids, and have many breaks throughout the day walking around the house to remain physically active. But there is something we are missing, and that is the power of the touch.

Benefits of hugging

Hugging has been associated with many benefits. Hugs convey both comfort and affection, and studies have shown that they also reduce stress, may protect against illness, help with our heart health, alleviate pain, reduce our fear and make us happy.

Science supports those benefits. The hormone oxytocin produced by the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland has been called the “cuddle, bonding or feel-good hormone” or even the “hormone of love”. It is known since the 50s for its use in females during labor, delivery and postpartum recovery. More recently it was discovered that oxytocin is released by the pituitary gland when we’re physically affectionate, producing feelings of connection, bonding, and trust. A variety of behaviors may increase oxytocin, including hugging, cuddling, and having sex. These elevations are associated with reductions in blood pressure and heart rate in both men and women.

Affection not only increases oxytocin production but also reduces the secretion of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol weakens our immune system increasing our chances of getting sick. By reducing cortisol levels oxytocin improves our immune function and our ability to fight viruses and infections.

Oxytocin has also been linked to improvements in self-image and correlates with greater life satisfaction and lower levels of depression. I am not telling you this to tease you since you know that you have to limit touching other people. My intention is totally the opposite, there is a way.

How to hug safely

There is research showing that during the pandemic we can still hug. Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech, using a mathematical model, estimated the risk of viral exposure during a brief hug to be very low — even if the person didn’t know he/she was infected and even happened to cough.

That is great news as people are desperate to hug each other. It can be done but you need to take certain precautions. Wear a mask. Hug outdoors. Try to avoid touching the other person’s body or clothes with your face and your mask. Don’t kiss on the cheek. Don’t hug someone who is coughing or has other symptoms. Don’t hug face-to-face or cheeks together, facing the same direction. Hug facing opposite directions as this will prevent you from directly breathing each other’s exhaled particles. Let children hug you around the knees or waist. You can kiss your child on the back of the head. Don’t talk or cough and hold your breath while hugging. After the hug, back away two meters before talking again. 

The consensus is that we can add a few more hugs into our new normal. The risk of contamination with coronavirus is low but still exists so be selective when deciding whom you hug. Only hug close friends and loved ones.

Happy safe hugs!