Watch: A quarter of UK adults 'haven't been hugged for a year', survey suggests
One in four adults has not been hugged for more than a year, a new study has revealed.
The extent of loneliness brought about by the pandemic has been highlighted by research carried out by cross-party think tank Demos, which found that over a third (37%) of us have not been hugged for at least half a year, while 25% said they had not shared a hug for a year or more.
A further 13% said they have not been asked how their day was or talked to their neighbours in six months or more.
There was some cause for optimism in the findings, however, as 23% of adults said they feel there are more opportunities to develop new personal relationships now as life begins to return to some kind of normality.
Polly Mackenzie, chief executive at Demos, said the pandemic showed that strong community ties are "vital to our resilience and strength as a society".
"Our new research worryingly shows that these gains we’ve made in community relationships earlier in the pandemic are in danger of being lost," she said.
Social distancing rules, brought in to curb the spread of the coronavirus, have meant many of us have gone for more than a year without enjoying a good hug with some of our nearest and dearest – and boy, have we missed those embraces.
Pre-pandemic, hugs were a standard part of our everyday lives. Considered to be a universal greeting, whether you loved someone or had only just met them. Or a way of offering comfort to someone who needed it.
So, being forced to abstain from the caring act has been difficult to get used to.
But going without hugs may well have had a greater impact than simply forcing us to adapt our ways of greeting people.
What happens to our bodies when we hug our loved ones?
Hugging is one way in which we create close bonds with others, and it has a very real impact on us physically and psychologically, according to Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder/co-CEO of My Online Therapy.
"When we hug, our bodies release oxytocin, which is often nicknamed the ‘cuddle hormone’," she explains.
"The oxytocin that’s released when we hug is good for both our physical and mental health."
Dr Touroni says the endorphin oxytocin counteracts stress hormones such as cortisol.
"So, when it's released, it makes us feel reassured, safe and calm," she adds.
Hugging can also have an impact on how likely we are to get sick, with research uncovering a correlation between receiving hugs and a healthy immune system.
"The study looked at illnesses humans are more susceptible to because of stress and increased cortisol levels," explains Martin Preston, founder and chief executive from Delamare Health.
"The findings revealed that those who experience hugs more frequently were less likely to become sick and symptoms relating to illnesses were less intense."
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Research from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh confirmed these findings.
"The study found that participants who were intentionally exposed to a common cold virus have less severe illness signs when exposed to greater social support and more frequent hugs," adds Preston.
There are other physical health benefits we've been missing out while abstaining from hugging.
"Close physical contact, such as hugging and hand-holding, can help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes," explains Preston.
"In fact, research from the University of North Carolina revealed that hugs reduce blood pressure, one of the main risk factors of heart disease."
The power of a hug
It is unsurprising that among the 40,000 people from 112 countries who took part in a 2020 BBC and Wellcome Collection survey, the three most common words used to describe touch were: “comforting”, “warm” and “love”.
Although we’ve been able to connect digitally throughout the lockdowns, missing out on physical contact may have left us feeling ‘touch starved’.
"Without it [touch], we may have felt slightly more socially isolated, lonely or stressed," Dr Touroni adds.
That's because even if we’re used to not being touched a lot, after a while the need can feel very physical, and is sometimes described by experts as “touch hunger”.
As well as helping to counteract feelings of stress and loneliness, which so many have encountered during the coronavirus pandemic, hugs have some other pretty impressive benefits, not least helping to give self-esteem a boost.
"While everyone has doubts about themselves from time-to-time, low self-esteem can leave you feeling unconfident and unenthusiastic," explains Preston.
"Hugging is a great way to increase self-esteem as it provides a feeling of safety, love and security."
Studies have previously shown that hugging can help to minimise negative feelings and support a more positive state of mind.
"In fact, research found that participants who received more physical touch from their partners experience better mood and psychological well-being over time," Preston continues.
Not being able to hug has also had an effect on our relationships.
"Physical touch is important and can benefit a relationship as it increases the feeling of being connected with others," explains Preston.
Preston says when we hug our friends and family, feelings of safety, trust and belonging increase, and these emotions can help form strong and healthy relationships.
"Studies have shown that hugging and touching within relationships are typically stronger and longer-lasting," he adds.
The return to hugging
Like so many things in life, we likely did not realise how much we depended on human touch until we could no longer have it, which is why knowing we're now officially allowed to hug will have come as a welcome relief for many.
But not everyone will be so keen to return to their pre-pandemic levels of hugging with some emerging with a lingering aversion to physical touch, particularly with people outside their inner circles.
So to avoid awkwardness and confusion around physical touch in social situations, rather than just going in for a hug, it’s worth asking how that person feels about being embraced first.
With pre-hug boundaries set, it's time to go forth and hug, should you wish to, of course.
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