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When Jolene Caufield — senior healthcare advisor at Healthy Howard, a Columbia, Maryland-based nonprofit for healthcare resources — asked friends and co-workers what they have missed most during the pandemic, she wasn’t surprised by the answer.
“The overwhelming answer was hugs or the ability to hug someone,” says Caufield. “Many colleagues miss getting to hug their family and friends or even just to reach out and give a pat on the back or shake hands.”
Sure, everyone knows that a hug is good for your heart figuratively, but it truly is the “universal medicine.” One 2005 study from the University of North Carolina found that those who hugged after a general chat with their partners experienced lower blood pressure and reduced heart rate.
“Skin contact is quite important for us humans,” says Caufield. “It allows us to reinforce connections and affirms our relationships to one another. There are countless studies on how hugs release stress-reducing hormones like the oxytocin — the snuggle hormone — and the longer the hug lasts the more oxytocin is released.”
Hugging also helps reduce stress levels, says Amy Olson, a relationship expert and editor at The Absolute Dater, an online dating site. “From a psychological sense, hugging makes you feel safe and strengthens your connection to a friend or your partner,” she says. “This is why whenever we see a person in grief, the first thing we do is hug them.”
Skin contact is quite important for us humans.
Senior Healthcare Advisor
Of course, the global COVID-19 pandemic has changed all that. Travel restrictions and social distancing measures have made it difficult to see loved ones, especially those who are older such as grandparents. Even if you are lucky enough to score some socially distanced time with someone special, hugging is now fraught with danger.
Next best thing
But just because you can’t give an actual embrace, doesn’t mean you can’t offer one virtually.
“Simply saying the words, ‘I’m sending you a virtual hug’ can let a friend or loved one feel your positive intent and perhaps even close their eyes and visualize the comfortable squeeze,” says Helena Plater-Zyberk, co-founder of Supportiv, an online mental wellness community that’s helped more than 600,000 people. “For those who abide by the idiom that actions speak louder than words, sending a symbolic hug may feel more powerful—a snail mail card, a photo from a memory together, or a bouquet of flowers.”
Tasha Holland-Kornegay, Ph.D., a licensed clinical mental health counselor and the founder of WIRL, a site connecting healthcare workers to resources, suggests sending uplifting quotes or compliments through text or chat, and using a video conference system like Zoom or FaceTime for some safe hugs.
“Quality time is expressed when someone gives someone else their undivided attention — quality over quantity,” she says. “That means making eye contact while using FaceTime and actively listening. Extra mile means extra smile.”
Another great option, according to April Maccario, a relationship expert and founder of Ask April, is giving a pandemic-themed package. “Send your loved ones a ‘Take Care Box’ that consists of a face mask, facial shield, alcohol, and vitamins,” she says. “This will surely make someone smile.”
Maccario also suggests calling a local bakery that offers delivery and ordering a cake with a personalized message such as “Take Care Always.” And, “Classic as it may sound, sending a box of chocolates on any given day is always a great way to make someone happy.”
Don’t forget you
While you’re spending so much time virtually hugging friends and family, it’s important not to forget about yourself, says Kornegay, who has plenty of experience watching those in caregiving fields suffer from burnout.
Embracing yourself can have huge benefits, according to 2011 research from the University of South Australia. “Giving yourself a hug for 10 seconds each day can actually release biochemicals that reduce stress levels, increase energy levels, ease depression, strengthen your immune system, and lower your risk of heart disease,” she says. “Simply wrap your arms around yourself while engaging your abdominal and back muscles at the same time.”
Though it might feel a bit silly at first, Kornegay encourages everyone to put self-consciousness aside and go for it. “Give yourself a big-old bear hug and watch what happens!” she says. “A hug a day keeps the doctor away!”