“We are fundamentally a people who want to be with others. To talk, to laugh, to hug, to hold one another.”
President Biden addressed the return of physical contact during his first primetime remarks to the nation last week. He acknowledged the heartbreak and loneliness Americans have endured over the past year of the coronavirus pandemic all in an effort to keep one another safe.
In a step toward bringing the U.S. back to some form of normalcy, Biden pledged that by May 1, all U.S. adults will be eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine. To date, at least 11.5 percent of the American population has been fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC recently issued new guidelines saying fully vaccinated people can meet “with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or staying 6 feet apart” and “with unvaccinated people from one other household indoors without wearing masks or staying 6 feet apart if everyone in the other household is at low risk for severe disease.”
The guidelines recommend continued physical distancing between vaccinated people and unvaccinated people who are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 disease, or when visiting unvaccinated people from multiple households.
In a statement marking one year of the coronavirus pandemic, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said, “These new recommendations are a first step in our process of returning to everyday activities — safely spending time with family and friends, hugging our grandparents and grandchildren, and celebrating birthdays and holidays.”
Videos of fully vaccinated grandparents hugging their low risk grandchildren have gone viral. No plastic hugging barriers, no makeshift hazmat suits and no inflatable costumes.
“The benefits of hugging are really amazing,” Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, told Yahoo News. There are not only physical benefits when a person is hugged, but also emotional and mental health benefits.
Field explained that when you are embraced, the pressure from the hug stimulates pressure receptors under the skin, which slows down the nervous system, and, in turn, less stress hormone is released. “When you have less stress hormone, you save your natural killer cells, and they kill viral cells, bacterial cells and cancer cells.”
Field went on to point out the unfortunate irony of social distancing during the pandemic. “At a time when we need a lot of physical stimulation, like hugging, we’re getting too little of it. And what that is bound to do is not only make us less healthy because of the fact that we have higher stress hormones. And then we have fewer immune cells that can give us physical illness.”
Field said hugs can also help reduce stress and feelings of depression and anxiety, and can ultimately help people achieve better sleep: “What happens is this whole chain of physiological biochemical events. For example, there is an increase in serotonin, which is the body’s natural antidepressant and anti-pain neurotransmitter in the brain. There’s an increase in oxytocin, which is called the love hormone.” She said that stimulating the pressure receptors under the skin before going to sleep — with a hug, for example — can be beneficial.
Field and her colleagues affiliated with the Miller School of Medicine and Fielding Graduate University conducted a touch-deprivation survey in April 2020, shortly after the U.S. went into quarantine. Of the people surveyed, about 60 percent said they felt touch-deprived; 20 percent of those people were living alone, and 40 percent were living with someone else but still felt touch-deprived. “People were reporting that they were feeling stressed and depressed and not sleeping well and so forth. And the one thing that seemed to be saving them was exercise,” said Field, adding that it makes sense because exercise also stimulates pressure receptors under the skin, just as hugging does.
Field said that until Americans can safely hug one another, things like exercise, weighted blankets, scrubbing your hands under water or simply walking around the house are all things that can stimulate various pressure receptors. And when people can safely embrace a loved one again, she recommends an unbridled bear hug.
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