The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on everyone. Some of us have lost our jobs, some of us have lost loved ones, but one thing that has rung true for everyone is that we’ve all been separated from friends and family members for months.
During the weeks and months while we’ve been staying home and practicing social distancing, there’s been one thing noticeably missing from many of our lives: physical touch, and more specifically, hugging.
A hug has the power to bring calm, warmth, and make us feel loved. A hug can banish feelings of loneliness and improve our mental and emotional health. During a time when we are all under significant amounts of stress, a hug could go a long way.
The benefits of hugging, however, are not just merely in our heads. The science behind hugging is real, and the value of a good hug is undeniable.
The Health Benefits of Hugging
A hug is one of the ways humans show their affection and support for one another. When you hug someone (someone who you want to be hugging, anyways), you feel instantly better- but why? Science offers a few explanations:
1. Hugs Reduce Stress
When someone is going through a stressful or painful situation, supporting them through touch can reduce their stress by bringing them comfort. The best part about this is that the person doing the comforting also experiences a reduction in their own stress levels.
One study of twenty heterosexual couples found that when the women held the arm of their partner while he received unpleasant electric shocks, the parts of each woman’s brain that are associated with stress showed reduced activity, while the areas associated with the rewards of maternal behavior showed increased activity.
This study demonstrates that offering comfort has benefits for both the giver and the receiver .
2. Hugs Support Immunity
Hugs can also keep you from getting sick. A study of over four hundred adults found that participants with a greater support system were less likely to get sick, and those who did get sick had less severe symptoms than those who did not have a good support system.
The study determined that hugging was an effective way to convey social support, and those who received more hugs got sick less often .
3. Hugs Protect Your Heart
Hugging has also been found to improve your heart health, again because of its ability to reduce stress. A study of two hundred adults split participants into two groups: in one group, romantic partners held hands for ten minutes and then hugged for twenty seconds, but in the other the pairs just sat in silence. The participants were then required to complete a stressful task, in this case public speaking.
The participants from the first group, who received what the researchers called “prestress partner contact”, showed a reduction in both blood pressure and heart rate during the stressful task compared with the participants in the second group .
This study reveals that hugging is an effective way to reduce the physical symptoms of stress, which can lead to better heart health over time.
4. Hugs Make You Happy
Hugs make you happier thanks to the hormone oxytocin. This chemical, which is sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone” or the “happy hormone” rises when we hug, touch, or sit close to someone else.
“When we hug a person, both people in that exchange release oxytocin,” said Diana Simon-Thomas, who studies human happiness at UC Berkeley. “When we release oxytocin, we feel pleasure, we feel warmth, we feel that sense of safety. Our stress physiology becomes quieter. Oxytocin is a really important part of our collective demeanor as a species.” 
5. Hugs Reduce Fear and Anxiety
Hugs can be particularly beneficial for people with low self-esteem or who experience existential fear and anxiety. Everyone has to deal with existential concerns from time to time, and it is not uncommon for people to struggle to find meaning in life. Scientists have found, however, that people find security through touch which helps alleviate some of these concerns .
“Humans have brain pathways that are specifically dedicated to detecting affectionate touch,” says Johannes Eichstaedt, a computational social scientist and psychology professor at Stanford University. “Affectionate touch is how our biological systems communicate to one another that we are safe, that we are loved, and that we are not alone.” 
How to Hug Safely During a Pandemic
Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech and a leading expert on how the virus is transmitted, says that if you want zero risk, you shouldn’t hug at all. If, however, you want to hug, there are a few rules.
“If there’s someone you really want to hug, I think the safest way to do it is to, first of all, make sure both people are wearing a mask. Second of all, start from a distance, [and] cross that distance quickly to get to your hug. Keep your faces away from each other, in fact pointing in opposite directions.” 
According to Dr. Marr, the risk of exposure during a brief hug can be surprisingly low, even if you hugged a person who didn’t know they were infected and who coughed. How can that be?
Experts don’t know exactly how many viral particles you need to inhale in order to make you sick, but estimates range from two hundred to one thousand copies of the virus. An average cough might carry between five and ten thousand viruses, but only about two percent of the liquid in the cough (which is about one hundred to two hundred viruses) would be inhaled or splashed on a person nearby. Only about one percent of those particles (about one or two viruses) will actually be infectious .
Again, while the risk may be low, hugging does increase your chance of being infected, so the only zero-risk option is to avoid hugs altogether. That being said, there are extra precautions you can take to reduce the risk associated with hugging, including wearing a mask, hugging outdoors, avoid touching the other person’s body or clothes with your face or your mask, and avoid talking or coughing while you’re hugging.
To summarize, here are the do’s and don’ts of hugging, according to the New York Times:
Hug facing opposite directions.
Let children hug you around the knees or waist.
Kiss your children/grandchildren on the back of the head.
Hug cheeks together, facing the same direction.
Talk, cry, laugh, or cough while hugging .
Alternatives to Hugging
If hugging seems too risky to you, there are other ways you can experience the benefits of hugging without the real thing. Simon-Thomas says that even just the memory of a good hug can go a long way in improving your mood and decreasing stress.
“I think we all have to sort of figure that equation out for ourselves. And then I also think for adults in particular, we can use our powers of visualization. We can imagine the times that we have been touching people who we trust and care about.” 
Other things we can do, she says, that help to boost our oxytocin levels are engaging in small talk with strangers, and even hugging ourselves, as strange as that may sound.
Finally, if you’re going to hug others, Marr suggests choosing your hugs wisely.
“I would hug close friends, but I would skip more casual hugs,” Dr. Marr said. “I would take the Marie Kondo approach — the hug has to spark joy.”