The power of hugs: How choice turns dread into desire3 min read

Science says we need eight hugs a day for maintenance. But in a time when human touch is virtually banned, my mental health faced its biggest challenge yet.

Oxytocin is a chemical sometimes exchanged for the ‘cuddle hormone’. It’s associated with human touch, proximity, and, most importantly, hugs. It rises when we experience any of these things — causing us to feel less stressed, and happier. But I never saw it that way.

Hugging has always been a weird concept to me. I grew up in a very open family, no one held back what they thought, and nothing was left unsaid. But emotional support stopped there.

A rare sight, my father and I exchanging a hug at my graduation. Photo: St Louis School.

Hugs were reserved for special occasions: when someone was leaving, or when we were being reunited. With parents for teachers at your same school, you tend to grow up trying to escape them — not embrace them.

This view of human contact carried on into my adult life. I never gave casual hugs, and never desperately craved the touch of another being.

Until this year.

Losing the choice

I’d seen the UK lockdown coming a mile away. Because for my family, who live in Italy, this had already been their reality for almost three weeks. My father was interviewed several times on British and Irish radio, where he warned people relentlessly: “People need to copy Italy if they have any hope in avoiding our same crisis.”

I was one of the many who didn’t take it seriously. And when it finally hit me — when I tried booking a flight home and didn’t manage — it was too late.

The next four weeks were the weirdest, most unparalleled weeks of my life. I eventually managed to get home. But only after two weeks in isolation with family in Edinburgh, and an odd journey filled with masked faces, constant temperature checks, and scary police interrogations.

At home, I was ordered to take my temperature twice a day, in the security of my own room, and strictly no contact with my sister or parents. This lasted another full fortnight.

Abnormality didn’t come from a lack of lectures, or daily runs: it was because I couldn’t get within a metre of other people. I couldn’t touch anyone. And suddenly, I found myself desperately craving a hug.

Why do we want something most when we lose it?

It’s an ironic situation. But I believe it stems from a matter of choice. We are used to having so much to choose from in life, the rich variety in any common product means our days are filled with endless decisions. We’re spoilt for choice, right?

As soon as this choice is taken away, we feel robbed. And we miss the time when we took it for granted.

We feel it with our food, our entertainment, but most of all; we feel it with other human beings. Take a family member, for example, someone you didn’t talk with much, who suddenly passes away. Suddenly, the choice of not being able to talk to them, not being able to visit, not even being able to text, is taken away. You’re filled with instant regret, right?

This can be applied to all types of scenarios. And I think that if this pandemic has taught people anything, it’s that we shouldn’t take life for granted. The little things: having an endless variety of pasta boxes to choose from at the supermarket, going to the cinema to watch a movie, or even just going for a picnic at your local park — they’re all gone.

Life will probably never return to the way it was pre-coronavirus. But maybe that’s for the best. Perhaps, for people like myself, who had strange anxieties surrounding human touch, it will be an entirely new experience.

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