Mental Health

Lockdown easing: the science behind why hugs are so good for us

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Amy Beecham
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The government’s latest lockdown easing announcement on 17 May says we’re finally allowed to hug our loved ones again. But why do we crave human contact so much, and how can hugging benefit our mental health? A psychotherapist explains. 

Throughout multiple lockdowns and at various stages of the pandemic, social distancing has been in place, meaning that physical touch is reserved only for those within our households and we’ve gone without much-needed embraces from our partners, families and friends.

The current guidance states that you should stay two metres apart from anyone who is not in your household or bubble, or one metre with extra precautions in place (such as wearing face coverings).

However, as restrictions continue to ease in line with the government’s roadmap, the prime minister has announced that on Monday 17 May, alongside indoor dining for groups of six, cinemas and galleries, “cautious hugging” will be allowed.

The official position is that, from 17 May, when meeting friends and family, you can make a personal choice on whether to keep your distance from them. However, the government stresses that you should still be cautious, as close contact, including hugging, increases the risk of spreading Covid-19.

This is joyous music to the ears of us huggers who have missed the physical aspect of time with other people. A good cuddle may be the perfect remedy for feeling down amidst the uncertainty of our current situation, but it turns out there’s a lot of science behind it, too. 

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“Positive human touch is an essential part of how we interact as humans – it is crucial to not only our survival, but our mental wellbeing,” says Emmy Brunner, a leading psychotherapist, transformation coach, and founder of the Recover Clinic.

When we are under pressure and stressed, our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol. “Human touch is the body’s natural antidote to cortisol. When we touch, it reduces our stress and allows our mental and physical functionality to thrive,” she explains.

It would be an understatement to say that we’ve experienced elevated levels of stress over the course of the pandemic, but without physical contact, an important part of our artillery to help us cope with that has been deprived.

“Some of us have been able to process the events of the last year and yet we’ve almost all been struck by this persistent sense of unease, “ says Emmy. “For the most part it isn’t about the loss of a workplace or being able to eat dinner out, it’s about not holding a loved one close, or putting an arm around a friend.”

It’s the casual acts of human touch that we’re all craving, she believes, as it’s in our nature as human beings to thrive on human contact and connection.

What happens to our brains when we hug?

When we experience touch – whether that’s a hug, a massage or someone holding our hand – our brains release oxytocin, otherwise known as the ‘happy hormone’.

“Oxytocin makes us feel good, aids emotional bonding and simultaneously decreases fear and anxiety responses in the brain,” says Emmy. “When the vagus nerve system is stimulated, we see a decrease in cortisol and an increase in serotonin.” Serotonin alleviates pain in the body and lifts our moods, but without touch, our body doesn’t have the same resources to combat all of the things that the pandemic will undoubtedly have triggered: fear, pain, depression and anxiety

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What are the health benefits of hugging?

A tight hug isn’t just a nice experience, it can also help reduce pain, boost your heart health and protect you against illness. Even a 10-second squeeze can improve your health, as a 2012 study concluded.

And that isn’t just the case for humans. Other animals, including dogs, cats, monkeys and even cattle are thought to be deeply affected by oxytocin as well, hence why we find holding our pets close so therapeutic.

Our positive response to touch starts from a young age, too, as data from Emory University indicates that well-hugged babies grow up to be less stressed as adults. 

So what happens when we can’t hug people?

Zoom drinks and socially distanced walks were great when we had no other option to stay in touch, but undoubtedly left a huge hole our lives when it came to actual physical contact.

Throughout the pandemic, so many of us have missed touch interactions such as workplace greetings, hugging friends, massages and beauty treatments – and we’ve seen an increase in depression and anxiety because of it.

So whilst people have assumed that vanity was the main reason so many people flocked to salons as soon as restrictions eased on 12 April, what if it was down to more than just sorting our roots out?

“We all leave those experiences feeling a little lighter and more relaxed don’t we? That’s about the power of touch and human connection,” says Emmy.

Touch starvation – or “skin hunger” as it’s often termed – occurs when a person experiences little to no touch from other living things. Multiple studies have found that missing out on regular human touch can have some serious and long-lasting effects, including depression, stress, mood and anxiety disorders, and secondary immune disorders.

The Welsh word cwtch has no literal English translation, but is an emotionally significant embrace that evokes a sense of home. And that really is what the comfort of a hug with someone you treasure feels like – a missing piece finally being found.

Here’s looking forward to 17 May, where we can hold our loved ones tight and no longer have to freeze our bits off in a pub garden in order to do so. We can’t wait.

Images: Getty 

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Amy Beecham

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