To better understand what we are deprived of at the moment, can you explain how the hug, or touch, concretely affects our physical and mental health?
Touch, in general, is the basis of our development. Our brains are programmed to seek out contacts, and meaningful contacts with people who are going to be there for us. It is the affective dimension that makes us characteristic of human beings, that is to say that we are beings of social commitment.
Lately, we realized that physical contact, reassuring and pleasant, as can be a consented hug, even for a few seconds, can have an effect on the nervous system, in particular on its parasympathetic part which gives a feeling of safety to the body and to the individual. Some studies indicate a drop in blood pressure, the possibility of the release of serotonin and dopamine, hormones that help reduce stress and give a feeling of well-being, and especially oxytocin, this hormone of love which makes us bond with people. Even a short hug has a significant effect on a number of physiological factors, including the immune system. But for the nervous system to go into parasympathetic mode, where there is relaxation, a secure imprint, it still takes time. So that it fits into a well-being that lasts, time will have an effect like a massage.
We sometimes see initiatives where strangers distribute hugs in the street. Does it have the same benefits as if the hug comes from a loved one?
It is very important as a question. It is true that there is a physical effect of contact as such, but we are not just physical bodies. The hug is also done in a context, and the context contributes to the feeling of security. If someone gives us a hug or a hug unexpectedly from behind, chances are it won’t have the same effect since our system will no longer go into defense mode. It can have a stressful effect. On the other hand, if the hug is done in a context where there is consent, the desire to be touched, that reinforces the physiological elements.
If hugs are always possible inside a family bubble, we still lost several opportunities to do so on a daily basis. And there are a lot of people who live alone. Does this have an impact?
I think it has a very important impact. Even though humans have a great capacity to adapt to stressful and difficult conditions, as it can be in times of pandemic, it would be dangerous to say that we can do without that. The human being is fundamentally a being of contact, of relationship. We need, for our nervous system, to be in relationships where we are socially engaged, where we feel that the other is looking at us, hearing us, can touch us. We know that when we are deprived of social commitment, it can activate stress reactions, or even freezing of reactions, closer to paralysis or trauma. What I observe in the clients I support, in the people around me and in myself, is that there is still a reduction in the number of people we touch. Often people, even if they have a spouse, will say that it is difficult not to have these little daily contacts anymore. There is a ritual dimension that punctuates our daily life that makes us alive and confirms us socially. More painfully, when people no longer have contact or touch at all, it greatly reinforces the isolation, as well as our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
Once the pandemic has passed, do you think we will get back into the habit of cuddling, that it will become as natural as before?
This is a question I also ask myself. There is also this whole question of the imprint that it will have on the little ones, on the young people who, suddenly, had an apprehension of very different limits, a vigilance to have on a daily basis. We’ve been in this situation for almost a year and I can’t believe that it doesn’t have an effect, that we can switch overnight into an easy return to the touch. It would no doubt be naive. There is a form of imprint that is there and that will perhaps infiltrate us more than we can think because we are also beings of habit. We are developing this routine of being careful, of being wary, of having barrier gestures that are necessary in the current context. I think there will be another transition to make to gradually reopen to the other.
In times of crisis, physical contact seems even more necessary. However, their restriction is one of the peculiarities of the one that strikes us …
One of the elements that can counterbalance the risks of trauma is maintaining relationships where one feels safe, recognized and accepted. The latest studies on the functioning of the nervous system really insist on this, on the physiological and psychological effect of the presence that we can give ourselves between human beings. We know that in contexts of war, of confinement, it was a very important factor of reassurance and security which made it possible to get through the crisis. There, we are in a context where we can keep in touch, but which is left behind. There is still an element that we can find in this social commitment through listening, speaking, looking. It can be a counterweight, but it cannot replace.
Can hugging yourself provide some comfort?
Yes. These are things that are sometimes used in therapy when people feel helpless, to see how they can regulate themselves, calm their nervous system on their own. Touching, hugging, even if there is no contact with the other, can also have a calming effect on the nervous system.
For the sake of brevity, Florence Vinit’s comments have been edited.