In August, H&M Lab, the fashion behemoth’s German hub of innovation, collaborated with Boltware, a Berlin-based wearable tech company, on a singular product, one conceived with the current global crisis in mind. Dubbed Wearable Love, it’s a jean jacket with embedded sensors woven throughout, allowing the wearer to connect via Bluetooth to an app and activate signals meant to mimic the sensation of being embraced. The technology is impressive, the idea noble, but the fact that we need to buy a jean jacket to give us a hug also feels, well, pretty depressing.
In my home at least, hugs, or rather the lack of them, have been an almost daily topic of conversation and concern. Between me and my two-year-old, that is. She is an eager and enthusiastic hugger, so putting the reins on her tendency to touch everyone (and everything) this year has been a challenge. I understand her frustration: I too am an eager and enthusiastic hugger. And I come from a long line of touchy-feely greeters—my parents were both born and raised in Italy, a country where elbow bumps will never suffice, and much of my extended family says hello by exuberantly grabbing your face and planting not one, not two, but three cheek kisses, as is customary in Friuli where they reside—so it’s likely genetic.
Among children, the impact of touch deprivation has been studied extensively. “Early research in infants and small children in custodial care found those that lacked touch failed to thrive,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. “This led to changes in policy. Skin-to-skin contact is now a routine part of care after a birth. So touching is important not only psychologically but physically as well.” The physical benefits of touch are crucial and extend far into adulthood: “When we are touched—and, it should be added, touched in the right way—it activates a relaxation response,” explains Samantha Boardman MD, a clinical instructor in psychiatry and attending psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Neurotransmitters like oxytocin are released, there is a dampening of the stress hormone cortisol, and your blood pressure and heart rate go down.” A 2014 study led by Sheldon Cohen at Carnegie Mellon University and published in Psychological Science confirmed that hugs were beneficial for the immune system, shielding people from the increased susceptibility to illness that comes with being overly and chronically stressed. So if you’re anxious or stressed-out (two emotions that have been running particularly high this year), it’s not just anecdotal; there is scientific legitimacy to the notion that a hug can actually make you feel better.
This is why the sight of people in my Instagram feed embracing humans outside their immediate family has spurred a desperate longing in me—as well as confusion. And also, sometimes, resentment: I thought none of us were supposed to be doing any touching right now?
“When you’re hearing one thing from your mayor or governor, another from your federal government, and then seeing something on Instagram, we cannot underestimate how incredibly stressful all the conflicting messaging can be for people,” adds Boardman. Stressful indeed. I’m reminded of that tired old mom phrase: if all of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump too? Well, this mom is increasingly tempted to jump. But despite my IG feed showing non-familial, sometimes unmasked, embraces, the risks of transmission that come with contact outside your immediate family or strict cohort are quite real. “There is overwhelming evidence that airborne transmission is happening especially in close contact and we know this because the virus has been found in air in particles small enough to remain floating around for hours, and infectious virus has been found in the air,” says Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and one of the leading experts in the study of airborne transmission of viruses. “We don’t yet know exactly what fraction of transmission occurs through the air but it is significant.” And, adds Ellen Foxman MD, PhD, an assistant professor at Yale’s School of Medicine, someone who is infected can be shedding the virus and have the virus on their hands, clothes, or face without realizing it.
So, is there a way to safely hug outside our immediate family or cohort right now? When I asked Waleed Javaid, MD, the director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown, his response was an all caps: DO NOT HUG. But Marr, who rates our popular greetings on the following low-to-high risk spectrum—“1) A quick handshake followed by handwashing, 2) a hug following protocols, 3) kiss on the cheeks—says there is a way to do it safely. While a hug poses more risk than a handshake because it brings people in closer contact, following a strict hugging protocol mitigates some of that. “The huggers should wear masks, turn their faces away from each other, avoid talking during the hug, get in and get out of the hug quickly rather than linger in close proximity, and wash their hands afterward,” Marr explains. She considers a hug following the above protocol to be lower risk than sitting outside less than 6 feet away for more than 15 minutes (as most would in an outdoor dining setting).
Communication may be just as important as taking all the above safety precautions: after many months of being nervous about—and, sometimes, terrified of—touch, incorporating it again, even if it’s simply a hug among friends, requires a conversation. “Touch can be interpreted as social signals that can be confusing in the current context,” says Holt-Lunstad. “Under normal circumstances touch between close relationships, like friends or extended family, may have had shared meaning, but that can be divergent under these circumstances, with one person perceiving it as a display of caring, and the other perceiving it as a lack of caring or disregard for safety.” So while you may be tempted to just swoop in for a hug with a friend, it’s wise to ask first before approaching. And that may, for some, says Foxman, defeat the purpose of the social connection your greeting was intending to foster. But for me—and certainly my toddler, too—the hug famine is real enough that I’m willing to have the conversation if the end result is an embrace, however brief.