Physical Touch & Coronavirus

Michelangelo once said that, “to touch can be to give life”. Yes, true. But maybe not a blanket statement that you can make amid a global pandemic.

Let's talk about physical touch in the time of Coronavirus, specifically the hug. Some people hate them. Some people love them. I’m the latter. 

I want to talk about it now because yesterday I hugged another person for the first time in 12 weeks and it was a very different kind of hug. I felt like my heart really connected with theirs and I have felt noticeably calmer and more positive/optimistic ever since. 12 weeks is the longest I have ever gone without physical touch or a hug from someone in my life. And while I have been aware that I have missed physical touch while we have been in isolation, I didn’t realise just how much.

Yesterday was the first time I saw my family since we all went into isolation. They are on the Mornington Peninsula and I’m in the city so travel has been a major divide. My family, mainly my mum, a retired nurse, is a germaphobe which has actually proven to be very helpful throughout my life. So naturally, we had discussed protocol on how our catch up would play out. We had agreed on a hug but no kiss on the cheek. I am completely on board with slowing the spread and I won’t be going out and hugging all of my friends just yet, but family was an exception.


So why were these hugs so good?

When we don't have physical touch in our lives, studies have shown that we can experience more anxiety, stress, difficulty sleeping and generally lower moods. Which may explain why some of us have been feeling a little off during isolation. 

It turns out that the need for physical touch is hardwired in us. It’s engrained in us from the moment we are born - babies need to cling to their caregivers to help them survive and create a bond. Touch signals safety and trust and love. It is the fundamental language of connection and connection is 1/6 of my personal values that I live out every day (along with kindness, health, humour, design, originality).

When we hug, a shitload of things happen in the brain, one of them is the release oxytocin - the feel good hormone that inspires positive thinking, optimistic outlooks, well-being, happiness and rainbows. A lot of f**king rainbows. A hug also slows the release of cortisol - the stress hormone that can cause inflammation, insomnia, heart disease, weight gain and a shit tonne of other health problems. 

So because of what we experience when we hug, physical touch can be addictive. While I agree that the handshake should be left in 2019, hugging friends and family is a different story. But going around hugging everyone isn’t really possible right now. Then I found this absolute dreamboat.

Disclaimer: do not try this at home.

Her name is Catherine Newton and this is her gallery of hugs.

“She loves hugs so much she captures them by clutching blobs of 900-degree Celsius molten glass to her chest. Wearing a firefighting suit and holding a heatproof blanket, the Canberra artist lies down and wraps her arms around a hot glass vessel. As the glass cools, it maintains the shape of her hug.” This is not a joke. What a legend. 


She has literally created an exhibition of hugs - she is my emotional doppelgänger.

The article on the ABC News website quotes clinical psychologist at the University of Canberra, Dr Vivienne Lewis, who says, “somebody in the middle of COVID-19, living by themselves and they've had no contact with anybody else, their skin is actually craving touch, and craving that feeling of being warm, and being loved and being cared for.” Hi, yes, hello! Thank you Dr Lewis for my personal acknowledgement.

So while I don’t advise you go and hug flaming molten, I do advise you to acknowledge the importance of physical touch with people you love, when we are allowed to do it more in the coming weeks/months. In the meantime, this lady may just be on to something...

Bridget Mahon


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