Hugs… from a distance

by Catalina Ene Onea, PhD

Did you know that a hug of just 20 seconds can release the hormones oxytocine and dopamine, both responsible for our wellbeing, making us feel happy and content? Oxytocine, ‘the love hormone’ produced by the hypophysis, is known to improve sleep quality and to stimulate and strengthen the immune system by reducing or even neutralising stress hormones and by regulating the cardiac rhythm. A study by the University of North Carolina showed that the level of cortisol, the hormone produced by the adrenal glands under stressful conditions and associated with high blood pressure and high blood sugar levels, dropped significantly when participants hugged for twenty seconds or more. Paul Zak, an expert in oxytocine, recommends “at least eight hugs a day, in order to be happier and enjoy better relationships”. And having studied the positive effects of hugs in general, American psychologist and pastor Kevin Zaborney concluded that hugs represent beautiful and healthy ways of expressing ourselves, and started a National Hug Day in the USA in 1986. Now we celebrate this day worldwide every January 26th as International Hug Day with mottos like: “A hug is like a handshake coming from the heart” or “Sometimes a hug is all you need to feel better”.

But what can we do now that in our daily lives, we are more likely to see a sign saying “No hugging”/ “No kissing”? When even a simple handshake is seen as a violation of privacy? When pre-school children draw people standing two meters apart from one another? My dear friend Laura, with whom I shared so many great moments dancing and visiting tapas places in Spain (‘high risk’ and ‘dangerous’ activities right now), tells me with sadness in her voice how her 6-year-old daughter is growing up with face masks, lockdown and social distancing; and how she longs more than anything else to speak to her friends again. In Berlin we’ve even seen children with face masks on a billboard for a local radio campaign on safe driving around schools.

So what should we do when physical closeness is not an option anymore? When even the shortest touches have to be washed thoroughly with lots of soap while singing Happy Birthday twice and then sealed with antibacterial and antiviral solution? How can we still enjoy hugs and their positive effects? Maybe one possible solution would be to try to focus our attention towards other kinds of hugs that don’t need physical closeness to release oxytocine and serotonine in our bodies.

In these sad and lonely times, looking at old holiday photos (when we could touch, smell or taste things from all over the world) could generate nostalgia, melancholia or even frustration because we probably won’t be experiencing similar moments any time soon. However, listening to a song, for example, watching a film, or perhaps a session of aromatherapy – any type of activity that relies less on the tactile sense and focuses much more on activating the other senses­ – could have the potential to work as a balm curing the hoarse throat of the (sick) times of illness we’re living in. A transfer of senses from the tactile to the hearing, seeing or smelling – a synesthesia of emotions, with emphasis on the senses that let us be happy even from a distance.

It’s no wonder that street performers and especially street musicians, maybe even those not much noticed in the past, have now come to captivate a greater number of people who finally stop rushing – often towards nothing – for a second, to listen to the only artists whose sound hasn’t (yet) been silenced, like the closing of the concert halls. Or maybe they stop for a little while to listen to their own heart reacting to the auditory hug offered by the music under the clear sky, now bringing back to life all the senses in their hitherto numb bodies.

I myself have recently received an auditory hug. It came from an old friend from England with whom I had lost touch for a while. The last I knew of him was that he had moved to Spain to work and live; he was also in a choir there, continuing a passion of his that he’d started to develop in London – singing. Then, of course, the world changed; his choir could no longer sing together and after a while, he returned home. But he’d felt for a long time he wanted to use his voice in other ways too, and so he started reading poetry out loud. He started reciting lyrics of various genres – at first only for his own pleasure, then for friends and family, and eventually the whole world. This is how the project Ben Reads Poetry was born, via Instagram, Twitter (@benreadspoetry for both) and YouTube. And what a lovely surprise Ben gave me by reading also one of my poems!

He enjoyed the experience so much that in the end he started writing poetry himself – not only did his sonorous voice caress our ears, but he also found his inner voice. A voice that hugs you with poetic emotion and lures you into putting the daily routine and stress on hold, so you can immerse yourself in that verses’ universe; in the world of poetry, where everything is possible, accessible and so real, it makes you wonder if we don’t actually live like mere shadows of those who we really are and this world that we call our reality isn’t just a copy in unclear reflection of a universe from the other side. Could Plato be right in his allegory of the cave?

Ben’s voice translates into a path towards a new world, a parallel word, a high world full of colour, sound and fine flavours – the world that was inside of us all along, but we maybe didn’t know about; a world in which we discover  our own selves. The world that contains the special ‘ingredient’ only poetry can bring to the surface. The ultimate hug we give to ourselves, to the delight of the drops of oxytocine in our cells; and so we ourselves are revived, reinvigorated by their invigoration.

I’m sharing this auditory hug of words, sounds and senses with you, and hope that each and every one of you can find their own personal forms of hugs from a distance and truly enjoy them until the “old-fashioned” hugs are encouraged once again.

Ben Reads Poetry : Cătălina Ene Onea – postulate”



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