Hugs: Some Of Its Benefits, Doing It Right In COVID-19

At the core, one notices the need to please human longing for human touch, which is referred to as skin hunger.

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By Gaby Ndongo (5 mins read) 

Often, it starts with a sore throat, which worsens and then paves the way for a running nose as well as coughs. When these symptoms end, I am left to the mercy of a vehement headache and fever that only amount to one thing: feebleness. They both usually last for two to three days or more in some cases.

This has been a recurring state visiting my body at least once every year since the winter recess of 2017, when I was in my second year of a three-year bachelor’s degree. A local clinic nurse said that these effects are likely related to the lack of vegetables in my diet. It is understandable when considering the rushed diet of some students. A diet that I began accustomed to since the preparation of my final matric examination in August 2015.

The last of such flu symptoms happened at least two weeks before the first novel coronavirus (COVID-19) case was confirmed in South Africa. On Sunday, 29th March, which was the third day of the nation-wide lockdown that began on Friday, 27th March, I was scrolling through Instagram statuses.

One of the New York Times’ (NYT) status posts read, “People who receive regular hugs displayed fewer flu symptoms than participants who were hugged less frequently in a study at Carnegie Mellon University.” Carnegie is a private research university situated in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States of America (USA).

The evaluative claim may hold some truth, especially for introverts. I say such because I am one of them. I feel consumed when in public areas, especially malls, and then whole and calm when I am at home alone, reading, writing, watching or listening to content that appeals to my interests.

Apart from those details, the thoughts in my mind eat away hours of my days when there is nothing productive to do. With all these said, it should not come as a surprise as to why I rarely get hugs. It is not because I cannot or have no one to receive hugs from but because I am mostly distanced from physical human contact.

In retrospect, during the writing of this article, I realised that it marked close to eight weeks since I had last felt the touch of another human being, apart from three handshakes. This did not bother me because I felt at peace in the cottage I had moved into during late February. (2) 200524_Hugs COVID-19_GNN

Those NYT posts are from an article written by Kristen Radtke, an author and illustrator, and forms part of the “Art In Isolation” series.

It further mentioned other benefits of human touch to the body and mind. All of them are supported by some form of research or expert opinion. But at the core of their arguments is the term skin hunger, which refers to human longing for physical, human contact. “It’s an odd and beautiful name that connotes not a want but a need,” read the article. 

Here are the other benefits mentioned in the article: 

  • “Women who are frequently hugged have lower blood pressure than those who are not, according to research at the University of North Carolina [in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA].”
  • “Hugging stimulates the thymus gland, regulating the body’s white blood cell production, which helps fight infections, according to research at the University of North Carolina.”
  • “Regular touch reduces levels of stress hormones, says Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine [in Miami, Florida, USA].”
  • “Physical touch triggers the orbitofrontal cortex in the brain, which leads to feelings of compassion and releases oxytocin, according to Dacher Kelter, professor of psychology at the University of California [in Berkeley, California, USA].”

Although the researches were conducted in and the expert opinions come from the Western world, one can rest assured that a Black person in Africa can refer to their findings. It is mainly because they speak about a fundamental human need: skin hunger.

Hugging the right way

In another article, NYT outlines the best ways that one can hug people during this pandemic. The suggestions are from scientists who research airborne viruses. 

“There is tremendous variability in how much virus a person sheds, so the safest thing is to avoid hugs. But if you need a hug, take precautions,” writes Tara Parker-Pope, a  wellness columnist and founding editor of Well, which is the consumer health vertical for NYT. Those precautions include: 

  • Wearing a mask
  • Hugging outdoors
  • Avoid touching the other person’s body or clothes with your face and your mask
  • Not hugging someone who is coughing or has other symptoms
  • Not talking or coughing while hugging
  • Trying not to cry when hugging
  • Hugging briefly
  • Holding your breath when briefly hugging 
  • Backing away quickly to at least two meters when you are done
  • Washing your hands afterwards

The scientists further suggest that you do not “hug face-to-face” or have your “cheeks together, facing the same direction”. However, you should “hug facing opposite directions”, “let children hug you around the knees or waist” if you are taller than them, and “kiss your grandchild on the back of the head” as you stand looking down at her/him, while wearing a mask. TOJ


Writing by Gaby Ndongo. Editing by Kupakwashe Kambasha. Feature image by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash.


 

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