It's been over a year since people started isolating and social distancing due to COVID-19. By the time Bridgerton came out in December 2020 — and many people were forced to celebrate the holidays without their usual friends and family — the world had collectively reached a whole other level of lonely. Hugging a parent, sitting next to a friend on the couch or even a first kiss on a date still felt unsafe.
So, on May 16, 2021, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that, in the U.S., fully vaccinated people can go back to doing things without masks and social distancing in most places, people turned to Google to ask an important — and, frankly, adorable — question. According to Google Trends, after the CDC announcement, searches for the phrase "when can we hug again," surged by 150 percent. 🥺
After staying at arm's length (or, rather, 6 feet) for so long, can you finally stop doing the elbow bump, and start wrapping your arms around literally everyone? Jacqueline Champlain, M.D., a family medicine physician at the Austin Regional Clinic in Texas, says yes — as long as both parties are vaccinated, the risk of contracting or spreading COVID is low and is outweighed by the (absolutely real) benefits of a hug. "I think the connection between people is very, very important, and I think certainly in vaccinated individuals right now, hugging falls under reasonable risk," says Dr. Champlain.
"Human touch, such as a hug or holding hands, has various benefits for our mental and physical health," says Melissa Dowd, M.S., L.M.F.T, a psychotherapist with virtual health platform PlushCare. She's right: Research shows hugs can make you happier, reduce fear and anxiety, and lower blood pressure. There's even a study that suggests giving and receiving hugs can strengthen your immune system.
How are hugs the magical solution to all of your problems? "Human touch can be beneficial because it encourages your body to release the hormone oxytocin, which is a hormone that helps humans form an emotional connection to one another and creates sensations that foster a sense of well-being and happiness," says Dowd. Studies show that oxytocin, sometimes known as the "cuddle hormone," is what helps your body cope with stress. Oxytocin can also act as an anti-inflammatory, an antioxidant, and even makes you feel safe in times of adversity or trauma. It's also a key ingredient for forming bonds between humans. For example, research shows that hugs between a child and parent are crucial for physical and mental development.
But oxytocin can't take all the credit. "Physical touch also increases levels of dopamine and serotonin," two neurotransmitters also help balance mood and stress, says Dowd. "Dopamine is also known to regulate the pleasure center in your brain that can offset feelings of anxiety," she says.
So, how many hugs do you need per day to get the full scope of their benefits? And how long should you be squeezing someone? Dowd references a quote from renowned family therapist Virginia Satir, who once said: "We need about four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs a day for maintenance, and 12 hugs a day for growth." Translation: Give and get as many hugs as you can. And you don't need to stress too much about how long a hug should last, since the ideal length varies from person to person, says Dowd; however, it should be long enough that both people begin to relax, she says.
If hugging is so good for your body, it begs the question: Why did you have to stop hugging people during the outbreak of COVID-19? Hopefully, you have been hugging healthy people in your household or your quarantine "pod" during the last year. But when it came to hugging outside friends and family, the benefits of hugging, at the time, didn't quite outweigh the risks. (By now, you likely know that most of the transmission of the virus is airborne through infected respiratory droplets, meaning sticking your face right next to someone else's came with the possibility of exposure.) Thankfully, knowledge and vaccine have given everyone back some power. "The vaccination has reduced how many people have the infection," says Dr. Champlain. "And the general public is very educated about COVID-19, and how it spreads, and how to reduce the transition." (See: How Effective Is the COVID-19 Vaccine?)
Dr. Champlain said after she got her vaccine in mid-December of last year, she started hugging her patients. She said for some of her older and high-risk patients, "I'm the only person that has touched them now in a year, and that's so sad, and unhealthy."
Not everyone is going to be ready to be smothered quite yet, so be sure to ask someone if they are ready to hug again. (In other words, ask for consent.) "Somebody that has a high-risk medical condition, or lives with somebody that's a high risk, or for whatever reason hasn't able to get vaccinated, those are the people we need to think about and be mindful of their feelings and give them the space that they might need," says Dr. Champlain. "I also think that a lot of people still have a lot of anxiety about COVID-19, and while they might want to touch and be touched by other people, they're not quite ready, they're not in that mental space."
And if you're not a hugger, there are other ways to get the benefits of hugs. "Holding hands, a high five, a pat on the back, etc. can give you some of the same benefits," says Dowd. "After a year of isolation, many people are just looking for connection again." (More here: The Benefits of Human Touch — and How to Get More, No Matter Your Relationship Status)
"Remember that we only ever do something because of how we think it's going to make us feel," says Dr. Champlain. "And so intellectually, and you can tell people this is a reasonable risk and you're okay, but if they feel in their heart, they're nervous, they're upset, or they lost a family member, or they have a sick mother, they might not be ready."
Dr. Champlain says that having respect for one another is the most healing gesture we can do after such a tough year — for some people, that might mean giving an enthusiastic elbow bump, and that's perfectly okay.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.