Ask anyone, one of the things that we’ve all missed most during the national lockdowns has been the absence of any physical contact with people other than those we’ve locked down with. Friends and colleagues, brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents – who’d have thought that we could miss something as simple as a plain old hug. And not just a hug. Shaking hands, a peck on the cheek (bet those air kisses are going to be a thing of the past when this is finally over!), tapping an arm to make our point, ruffling someone’s hair, even just peering in someone’s eye for that rogue eyelash they insist is at large and that you know you’re never going to find. Frankly I’d give anything to do that now! I don’t think we ever took on board just how much these incidental displays of physical contact meant to us.
For so many – apart from the obvious bewilderment and fear surrounding this virus – the pandemic has been about loneliness. The Office for National Statistics found that 5% of people in the UK – roughly 2.6 million – reported feeling lonely during lockdown. Interestingly, a survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation in April found that young people between the ages 18 – 24 were most affected by the isolation of this outbreak. Right across the generations there are so many feeling bereft at the loss of physical contact and the loneliness of social isolation from friends and relatives. The more vulnerable elderly who cannot see their children or grandchildren, students confined to campus, new mothers who can’t share the huge adjustment with other new mothers, ill health and those living alone without a family or social network to fall back on – the list is endless.
Talking to the people we care about through a small screen might give brief respite from this isolation, but for many it has only served to highlight a basic human instinct – our need to be physically around others. Science tells us that hugging someone – even just a simple touch – carries with it huge mental and physical health benefits. It reduces stress and eases anxiety, lowers blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, boosts the immune system and releases oxytocin – a happy brain chemical. Small wonder it seems to come so naturally to us, as if our bodies instinctively understand its healing powers. We do it automatically, without thinking or ever really noticing we do it – showing support, offering comfort, affirming love or just flinging bear-like arms around an old friend we haven’t seen in a very long time.
Now that we will finally be able to hug those family and friends who will complete our Christmas bubbles, I wonder if we’ll do it with quite the same uninhibited and natural abandon we had before any of this began. Perhaps with the people we know and love well not much will have changed, but going forwards, with a potential vaccine in place and attempting to return to some semblance of normality, what about those small gestures of social courtesy with people we don’t know quite so well or even know at all? Will we all be just that little bit more hesitant to shake hands or double kiss a stranger when we’re introduced for the first time?
I think that an element of the fear this virus has created in us is going to linger on for a while yet. We will remain in our allotted tiers, and for those in the highest tier, leaving Christmas behind is going to be hard. We cannot even begin to speculate what the new normal is going to look like as we go forwards into a very uncertain 2021, but the one thing I do know as we begin to emerge, very slowly, on the other side of all of this is that I am never going to take a hug or a touch for granted ever again.