IF THE pandemic has left you craving a cuddle, you aren’t alone. Some 60 per cent of people in the US reported feeling touch-deprived during the first month of lockdown, suggests a new study, even though only a fifth of those surveyed lived alone.
Tiffany Field at the University of Miami in Florida and her colleagues surveyed 260 adults and found that those reporting touch deprivation scored higher on scales measuring anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep issues and post-traumatic stress.
Touch deprivation was more common in people living alone, but also affected those living with family or friends. “Only 33 per cent of people said they were touching their partner a lot, and as many as 37 per cent said they weren’t touching them at all,” says Field (Medical Research Archives, in press).
A separate study of more than 1000 US adults found that those who frequently hugged, kissed or met up with friends and family in lockdown were 26 per cent less likely to report symptoms of depression and 28 per cent less likely to report loneliness, regardless of whether they were married or cohabiting. Regular video chats didn’t show the same benefits (medRxiv, doi.org/d5hf).
“We saw stronger mental health benefits from types of contact that involved touch, which aligns well with the benefits we know come from close touching, like decreased heart rate, higher levels of oxytocin and lower levels of cortisol,” says Molly Rosenberg at the Indiana School of Public Health in Bloomington, who led the work.
Given these benefits, is a quick hug out of the question? Rosenberg stresses the importance of limiting contact with non-household members to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and most governments continue to advise people to maintain a distance of at least 1 metre from others.
But proximity isn’t the only factor. “Because most hugs are just a brief encounter – and the short time is really key here – I think there are ways to lower the risks to what is, to me, an acceptable level, especially given the benefits of hugging,” says Linsey Marr at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
Avoiding face-to-face contact is key. Marr recommends face coverings, pointing faces in opposite directions and not touching the other person’s face or clothing with your face. “This is not a spontaneous act: you have to plan, and you should ask consent,” she says.
“Most hugs are just a brief encounter, and there are ways to lower the risks”
“It would also be prudent to wash your hands before and after you hug, and maybe not exhale,” says Margaret Hosie at the University of Glasgow, UK.
Experts emphasise hugging isn’t risk free and shouldn’t be routine. It should also be avoided by those in high risk groups or showing any symptoms of illness. Even so, “I believe we are at a stage of the pandemic in which we should all be able to make our own risk assessment, based on what is now known about the virus and its transmission patterns, and then act accordingly”, says David Heymann at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
newscientist.com, 5 August 2020