Yannika Ehde hugs Hassan Moghaddam at the Minc company hug station in Malmoe, Sweden. (Photo: Nilsson/ TT News Agency / AFP/ Sweden OUT)

Ely celebrated her birthday almost completely alone in the midst of the pandemic. The young woman who turned 30 is used to having two parties. One celebration is with many of her friends, another is a meal with her family. This year, she received no hugs from the people who love her.

During the week, her work can begin very early and end late at night. The working day consists of handling many files containing lots of information. Unfortunately, the internet bandwidth at her home, in the south of Mexico City, does not help her with her activities.

After more than five months of isolation, a lonely birthday, and too much work, her mental and physical health is taking a hit. “I’m losing a lot of weight and I’m tired all the time,” she says.

Accustomed to contact, going out with her friends, and having lots of social activities, now she is spending all her time at home. The reason for this is that she is trying to prevent her mother from catching Covid-19.

We all need a hug

Throughout our development, contact with other human beings is very important. When we are born, we need the warmth of our mothers to generate the first defenses in our lives. Breast milk and warmth from their mother’s bodies help babies to face the world for the first time.

“Hugs affect our state of mind. They are a gesture that is considered one of the most human. Within psychology, they are known for their importance, and there’s a lot of recent research that reveals the importance of hugs. They improve self-esteem and reduce stress, even before it happens,” says Ana Georgina Palma Bermúdez, coordinator of the psychology area of the Neurometrics neuroscience unit.

Some of the effects that hugs have on people are:

Boosting self-esteem.

Generating feelings of tranquility, security, and protection.

Upon receiving a hug, the brain releases oxytocin, the happiness hormone.

The Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS), in its Health Care Guidelines, notes hugs as expressions of affection for both men and women. “Caresses, kisses, holding hands, and hugs are necessary for our physical and mental health,” highlights the Institute.

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What does a lack of hugs cause?

In the face of threats, a natural reaction is to protect ourselves and comfort ourselves with hugs and cuddles. However, due to the pandemic, physical distancing has been enforced, and that can represent an emotional issue for some people, said Jesús Ramírez Bermúdez, who holds a PhD in Medical Science from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

Although the measures taken to deal with the health emergency are necessary, within the culture of health care, some processes must be rethought to be able to balance both physical and emotional wellbeing.

Hugs as a form of body protection are part of our earliest learning: during infancy; it is an initial and intuitive tool because we are social beings. Therefore, in the process that we are going through, some people sometimes feel sad and hopeless.

“We must learn how to modulate our emotions, especially if they become destructive. This can be through arts, sports, or meditation, which help us not to automatically get carried away by thoughts that make us feel bad,” explained Jesús Ramírez.

At present, people are losing relatives, and security protocols prevent them from going through the normal processes. This has resulted in a “complicated grief, originating in abrupt separations such as in hospitals, where patients die without saying goodbye.”

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Physical distance is not emotional distance

Given that we are facing a pandemic with repercussions that are not yet fully known, maintaining physical distance to avoid catching the illness is a hygiene measure that has been adopted around the world.

This physical distance should not, however, be confused with emotional distance. Electronic and digital resources such as video calls, telephones, and social networks can keep us in touch with our loved ones.

Although a show of affection such as a hug is irreplaceable, we do have other resources available, says Palma.

“There are things like smiling, laughing, and exercising that increase the substances in our brain associated with happiness. I think we should have this information more easily available to us, for when we need it,” says the specialist.

New habits can help us overcome the lack of physical contact right now. If you are still in quarantine with your family, do not forget the medicine that hugs provide.

“Helping younger children cope (with the pandemic) may mean giving more hugs and cuddles. Take the opportunity to spend more time together, and think about family activities that everyone enjoys,” is one piece of advice from the Mayo Clinic.

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Take care of your mental health

To overcome the lack of physical contact, Ely has taken some precautions. Unable to finish work early on weekdays, she uses Sundays to sunbathe in Chapultepec, a sprawling green area in Mexico City. Wearing a mask, she is able to exercise a little and stays away from other people.

She uses WhatsApp and social networks to stay in touch with her family. Her priority is to stay healthy, both physically and mentally, in order to take care of her 60-year-old mother.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown measures have been a challenge for mental health care. This part of our personal health care also faces the cultural challenge of being considered taboo.

Mental health care has become more important as a result of the lockdown. Institutions such as Tec de Monterrey, UNAM, and IMSS have opened phone lines offering psychological attention to those who suffer from sadness, anxiety, fear, sleep problems, and other disorders.

Perhaps one way of beginning to understand the importance of mental health, of generating empathy, and of overcoming the challenges of the day to day, is by giving hugs. “A hug goes far beyond just being an emotional gesture. It is an integral bond which unites each member of the family through shared values, experiences, affection, emotional support, and family unity,” says lawyer and psychologist Raúl Lazalde.

“A person with firmly established foundations and principles within their home will know what is right and what is wrong. They will know how to tell them apart and therefore make better decisions with positive results for themselves and for those around them,” says Lazalde on the importance of family unity and preserving mental health during the pandemic.




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