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Health Fusion: Afraid to hug people during COVID? Give out hug coupons instead

Social distancing means fewer people are giving out hugs. In this "Health Fusion" column, Viv Williams explores the health benefits of human touch and shares info she's learned about safe hugging practices.

Hug coupon
Hand out hug coupons when you can't give the real thing
Viv Williams

ROCHESTER β€” I bet many people had no clue that Jan. 21 was National Hug Day. I certainly didn't until one of my friends sent me a text to commemorate the occasion.

This particular friend is somewhat of a hug connoisseur. A true aficionado. What makes her so good at hugging is that she reads people really well and never forces hugs on you. If you emit vibes suggesting a need to maintain a clear margin of personal space or if there's a pandemic raging and hugging would be risky and foolhardy, she forgoes the embrace and offers a hug coupon instead.

The coupon reads, "Hug Coupon. Free. Good for one hug, redeemable from any participating human being."

I think there's some sort of magic in those coupons. No matter what my mood, when she hands me a few as I leave her home after a visit or one falls out of my birthday card, I always stop and think about how grateful I am for our friendship. And how the act of hugging β€” when offered earnestly β€” embodies the goodness of people.

Why do honest hugs make you feel so wonderful? A quick online search results in multiple scholarly articles exploring the potential health benefits of hugs. A study from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill shows that women who hug their partners experience lower blood pressure and a reduced heart rate. Another study finds that getting a hug during a time of personal conflict can help deflect the negative effects of the experience.

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And one article published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology really amazes me. It's a conceptual article, meaning they're exploring whether an idea would be appropriate for further research. The topic is the calming effects of human, animal and robotic interaction. In brief, the researchers write that human touch benefits both mental and physical health by having a calming and stress-relieving effect on people. So they're looking into whether humans could get the same positive health benefits from non-human sources.

I certainly feel as if I get a boost of positivity, happiness and stress relief when I hug people and pets that I love.

But what should we do about hugging during the COVID-19 pandemic? Especially when the omicron variant is proving to be alarmingly easily transmissible? I am certainly not in a position to be giving any sort of advice on this. But I did read an article from the BBC that encourages people to be "selective" as to whom you choose to hug.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website has a lot of helpful information about what type of human contact is safe. The information changes as the situation evolves, but they still recommend social distancing and masking indoors, especially if you have a condition or are taking medications that weaken your immune system, even if you're vaccinated.

Hugging, unfortunately, is just about the opposite of social distancing. So for now, we'll simply have to get the health benefits of hugging from the people in our bubble. And until we are able to hug people at random safely, I recommend you type up a stack of DYI hug coupons and distribute them widely. They may just make you and your hug recipient healthier and happier.

Follow the  Health Fusion podcast on  Apple Spotify and  Google podcasts. For comments or other podcast episode ideas, email Viv Williams at  vwilliams@newsmd.com . Or on Twitter/Instagram/FB @vivwilliamstv.

Opinion by Viv Williams
Viv Williams hosts the NewsMD podcast and column, "Health Fusion." She is an Emmy (and other) award-winning health and medical reporter whose stories have run on TV, digital and newspaper outlets nationwide. Viv is passionate about boosting people's health and happiness by helping them access credible, reliable and research-based health information from top experts. She regularly interviews experts and patients from leading medical institutions, such as Mayo Clinic.
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