The power of a hug: What a lack of touch has done to our physical and mental health

·5 min read
What a year of not being able to hug has done to our mental health. (Getty Images)
What a year of not being able to hug has done to our mental health. (Getty Images)

Hugs with family and friends are expected to be allowed from next week as prime minister Boris Johnson announces further easing of coronavirus restrictions in England.

Social distancing rules have meant it has been more than a year since we've been able to enjoy a good hug with some of our nearest and dearest – and boy have we missed those embraces.

Speaking on Sky News on Monday 10 May, minister for mental health, suicide prevention and patient safety, Nadine Dorries explained that hugs are “massively important for everyone”.

“I think it’s what most people have missed – that intimate contact with family and friends,” she said.

Watch: PM urges people to only hug 'if appropriate'

This afternoon the government is expected to announce that hugging could be back on the cards following the relaxation of rules for the next stage of the road map out of lockdown, which is due to take effect from 17 May.

Before lockdown, hugs were a standard part of our every day lives, something considered to be a universal greeting: whether you loved someone or had only just met them. Or a way of offering comfort to someone who needed it. 

So, being forced to abstain from the caring act has been difficult to get used to and going without hugs may well have had a greater impact than simply having had to adapt our ways of greeting people. 

Hugging has many health benefits, both physical and mental. (Getty Images)
Hugging has many health benefits, both physical and mental. (Getty Images)

What happens to our bodies when we hug our loved ones?

Hugging is one way in which we create close bonds with others, and it has a very real impact on us physically and psychologically according to Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder/co-CEO of My Online Therapy.

"When we hug, our bodies release oxytocin, which is often nicknamed the ‘cuddle hormone’," she explains. 

"The oxytocin that’s released when we hug is good for both our physical and mental health." 

Dr Touroni says the endorphin oxytocin counteracts stress hormones such as cortisol. 

"So, when it's released, it makes us feel reassured, safe and calm," she adds. 

Read more: Dad invents 'cuddle curtain' so his children can hug their grandparents during lockdown

Hugging can also have an impact on how likely we are to get sick, with research uncovering a correlation between receiving hugs and a healthy immune system.

"The study looked at illnesses humans are more susceptible to because of stress and increased cortisol levels," explains Martin Preston, founder and chief executive from Delamare Health.

"The findings revealed that those who experience hugs more frequently were less likely to become sick and symptoms relating to illnesses were less intense."

Research from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh confirmed these findings.

"The study found that participants who were intentionally exposed to a common cold virus have less severe illness signs when exposed to greater social support and more frequent hugs," adds Preston.

There are other physical health benefits we've been missing out on during the ban on hugs.

"Close physical contact, such as hugging and hand-holding, can help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes," explains Preston.

"In fact, research from the University of North Carolina revealed that hugs reduce blood pressure, one of the main risk factors of heart disease."

Watch: Indoor pints and hugs from next week

The power of a hug

It is unsurprising that of the 40,000 people from 112 countries who took part in a 2020 BBC and Wellcome Collection survey, the three most common words used to describe touch were: “comforting”, “warm” and “love”.

Although we’ve been able to connect digitally throughout the lockdowns, missing out on physical contact may have left us feeling ‘touch starved’.

"Without it [touch], we may have felt slightly more socially isolated, lonely or stressed," Dr Touroni adds.

That's because even if we’re used to not being touched a lot, after a while the need can feel very physical, and is sometimes described by experts as “touch hunger”.

As well as helping to counteract feelings of stress and loneliness, which so many have encountered during the coronavirus pandemic, hugs have some other pretty impressive benefits, not least helping to give our self-esteem a boost.

"While everyone has doubts about themselves from time-to-time, low self-esteem can leave you feeling unconfident and unenthusiastic," explains Preston.

"Hugging is a great way to increase self-esteem as it provides a feeling of safety, love and security." 

Read more: The science behind the perfect hug, from pressure to duration

Studies have previously shown that hugging can help to minimise negative feelings and support a more positive state of mind. 

"In fact, research found that participants who received more physical touch from their partners experience better mood and psychological well-being over time," Preston continues. 

Feel good factor - hugging releases oxytocin often referred to as the cuddle hormone. (Getty Images)
Feel good factor - hugging releases oxytocin often referred to as the cuddle hormone. (Getty Images)

Read more: How to revive friendships post-lockdown

Not being able to hug has also had an effect on our relationships. 

"Physical touch is important and can benefit a relationship as it increases the feeling of being connected with others," explains Preston. 

Preston says when we hug our friends and family, feelings of safety, trust and belonging increase, and these emotions can help form a strong and healthy relationships. 

"Studies have shown that hugging and touching within relationships are typically stronger and longer-lasting," he adds. 

The return to hugging

Like so many things in life, we likely did not realise how much we depended on human touch until we could no longer have it, which is why news that hugs could soon be back on the cards will come as a welcome relief for so many. 

While some of us will no doubt be feeling cautious about hugging people after going so long without, for others a potential return to embracing can't come soon enough. 

Watch: People 'should be cautious' when hugging others after Covid-19 restrictions begin to ease