Being deprived of touch can be bad for our health, so some are finding ways to hug again

One of the cruelest aspects of COVID-19 is the way the disease has kept us apart from loved ones and all the things we’ve lost as part of that distance: the silent companionship, the spontaneous conversations that don’t require a pre-planned Zoom meet, hearing laughter and chatter in the next room, losing ourselves in the atmosphere of a happy crowd, and so much more.

Francesco Rocca was working with the Red Cross during the outbreak in Italy and recalls with emotion how difficult it was being unable to comfort a colleague who had just lost her mother to COVID-19.

“She was crying in front of me, two metres far from me, and I couldn’t hug,” said Rocca, who is the President of the International Federation of the Red Cross.

“The terrible thing of this, is the lack of human touch.”

Hugs, one of the most instinctive and spontaneous expressions of comfort, affection, connection, and support, are now denied to many of us, but especially to those who may need it the most -- older adults, grandparents, those who are sick, those who are grieving, and those who must bide their time through the pandemic, alone.

Some have dubbed it a “touch deficiency syndrome.”

“For most people, getting hugs feels good. It feels that they are connected with someone,” said Dr. David Fryburg, an endocrinologist, research scientist and co-founder of Envision Kindness in Connecticut. “And that communicates very quickly: ‘We're connected to each other. I care about you. You matter to me.’”

Fryburg says research has shown that people who are not touched enough are often more stressed and anxious, and that hugs offer many positive health benefits including bolstering our immune function, lowering blood pressure, and reducing stress.

“There are a variety of internal changes that occur because of this positive touch. And so hugs is one part and then there's even a gentle caress, as well as massage - they're all in that same kind of category,” Fryburg said.

Just looking at photos of other people hugging can cause positive electrophysiological changes, he says, adding that even the act of imagining touching loved ones, even for a few minutes, can be beneficial.

A recent poll found that nearly half of Canadians said the first thing they plan to do after physical distancing measures are loosened is to hug their family and friends.

But to try and fill that void in the meantime, people around the world are finding creative ways to supplement the hug.

In Iceland, some have taken to hugging trees, as part of a campaign promoted by the Islandic Forest Service. Scientists have shown that contact with nature can offer a sense of comfort.

Meanwhile, animal rescue organizations have seen a surge in demand to foster dogs and cats as animal lovers look for four-legged companions to give and receive affection.

The Ellis family in Guelph, Ont. created the “Hug Glove” -- using a plastic vapour barrier sheet with arms and industrial tape so the family could hug their grandmother, who lives alone, without risking infection.

“We're huggers. We're a very happy, huggy family,” said Carolyn Ellis.

“As soon as we physically felt that embrace it just -- we started crying and tearing up … We can still bring joy and happiness to our lives and the hug for sure was. It actually was beyond my expectations. It was pretty incredible.” 

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