By Chris Croll
It has been said that human beings need four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs a day for maintenance and 12 hugs a day for growth. If that is true, one has to wonder what the social-emotional impact will be on tens of millions of people who have not hugged anyone for many months during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why are hugs so beneficial? Research showsthat hugging reduces stress in our bodies while sending calming messages to the brain. A gentle hug can stimulate the release of oxytocin which researchers call, “the cuddle hormone.”
Different populations have felt the absence of hugs during this pandemic in different ways.
Many elderly people who follow strict social distancing rules have had to forego holding newborn grandchildren, embracing graduating seniors and wrapping their arms around a friend grieving the loss of their spouse.
Young children who have been told they are no longer allowed to hug friends, cousins or other family members may be confused by the new rules. Since kids work hard from a young age to master appropriate greeting protocols, this change in process could cause sadness and hurt feelings, especially if they try to hug an adult who backs away from them in fear.
Even “leave me alone I hate you all” teenagers can suffer emotionally when they experience a lack of regular human touch. This is why high-fives, fist bumps, hugs and handshakes are all core elements of adolescent social interactions. Hugs help cement strong connections.
But there is some good news for the hug-starved out there! The New York Times recently published a guide called, “How to Hug During a Pandemic,” which outlines techniques for how to hug safely. The guide was created by Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech who used mathematical models from a Hong Kong study to calculate the risk of virus transmission during an embrace. Marr’s study found that if people follow simple guidelines, hugging is low risk for spreading Coronavirus—even if one of the people doing the hugging is infected and happens to cough during the embrace.
For adults, the safest way to hug, the guide says, is to do so wearing masks and with heads facing in opposite directions. Since COVID-19 is passed from person to person through respiratory secretions, it is important to keep hugs short in duration and to refrain from talking or crying during the exchange. The period of greatest risk for the huggers is while they are face to face as they lean in and out of the hug.
For an adult to safely hug a child, the guide recommends letting the child wrap their arms around the adult’s waist, so the child’s face remains several inches away from the adult’s face.
Some people may still not be comfortable hugging it out just yet so always ask before you go in for a squeeze. But once you do start embracing others again you may be surprised at just how powerful the experience is. We may never get back to a dozen hugs a day, but a few snuggles here and there can give us a feel-good boost.
[Chris Croll is a writer, community activist and former member of the Loudoun County School Board (Catoctin District). She lives in Leesburg with her husband and two children.]