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It’s true what they say: you don’t know how good you have it ’til it’s gone.
Remember when we used to be able to give our friends and family a big squeeze when saying hello? That automatic physical embrace that feels so natural when greeting the ones we love?
2020 has sure been one for the books. In particular, it’s got us all thinking about how much we have taken for granted up until now.
And while elbow bumps and socially-distanced rendezvous might be a temporary measure, there’s no doubt most of us out there are yearning for the days when we could embrace our nearest and dearest without the fear and anxiety that goes hand-in-hand with a global pandemic.
So, why does hugging give us those warm, fuzzy feelings, and what does science have to say about hugging during the pandemic?
Increased Levels of Oxytocin
Oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” is produced by the hypothalamus region of the brain and plays an important role in reproduction and social bonding.
It’s particularly important in women as it promotes maternal-infant bonding after childbirth.
A big, firm hug has been shown to release oxytocin while also releasing those feel-good hormones such as serotonin and dopamine. So, it’s no wonder that a physical embrace from a loved one feels so good after a rough day or a breakup.
Oxytocin was even shown to improve pain tolerance and improve immune function among participants in a study conducted by Ohio State University.
And hugs help us sleep better. High levels of oxytocin in the body have also been linked to sleep quality. People are more likely to fall asleep and stay asleep longer with increased levels of this sleep-regulating hormone in their body.
It’s a Boost for your Cardiovascular Health & Lowers Stress
Healthy blood pressure is key to a healthy heart.
And as it turns out, a nice, big hug can lower the heart rate thanks to that generous release of oxytocin.
When you hug someone affectionately, pressure receptors under the skin are stimulated, which leads to a relaxed state and a general reduction in stress levels. These receptors do wonders for your heart health by slowing your heart rate and decreasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
High cortisol levels are common worldwide, particularly among women with demanding, high-stress work and home environments.
Many studies show that those in close relationships involving lots of affection and snuggling generally have a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and, in turn, a longer life expectancy.
So, you might be thinking it’s a little cruel to be stating the many health benefits hugs and snuggles bring in a time when social distancing keeps us six feet or more from those we do not live with.
If you weren’t already craving a big squeeze from your friends and family, chances are reading this has got you thinking about it.
There’s a safe way to hug during these strange and unprecedented times.
There are several precautions you can take to minimise the risks of potentially contracting or passing on the virus if you really can’t wait any longer.
Hugging outdoors is your best option.
Preliminary research suggests the risk of infection is lower outdoors, providing you’re in a wide-open space and keep contact to a short amount of time.
Ensure your face is pointed in the opposite direction.
When going in for the hug, it may be normal to brush or even kiss the cheek of the one you hug. But face-to-face contact is a big no-no right now.
Hold your breath.
If you can, wear a mask or even try holding your breath for a few seconds while making the embrace and before stepping back and resuming your six-foot distance from one another.
According to Julian Tang, a virologist and associate professor at the University of Leicester, holding your breath will help you avoid breathing in or out any virus particles if you or your hugee is unknowingly infected.
And of course, it (hopefully) goes without saying that you should be avoiding hugs with anyone who presents symptoms like a cough or sniffles, even if they insist it’s just a common cold.
So, while we can’t go in for the big squeeze that we want and are so accustomed to, we can still enjoy a modified version of the embrace that we crave so much.
But, in the meantime, here’s some good news:
You can also reap the health-boosting benefits of a hug by spending time with your cat or dog.
Research shows that the oxytocin release that is triggered when we lovingly gaze into the eyes of our canine pals and engage with them physically is similar to the response by mothers and their infants.
Don’t have a furry companion? Offer to walk your friend’s pups! Or maybe do a casual drop-in at your local dog park and make some new friends.
2020 is a year of embracing “new normals” and shifting our behaviour to ensure we keep those around us safe.
We may not be able to do everything the way we want, but there’s still lots we can do. Don’t forget that a good old-fashioned phone call with a loved one or a socially-distanced walk with your bestie will bring about those positive feelings of interconnectivity that we humans need.
There will come a time when life will return to normal, and it’s probably safe to say we are all going to appreciate our social and physical interactions so much more.