The Current

'A sensory overload of joy': Vaccinated Canadians embracing the chance to hug their loved ones again

Hugging is making a comeback as vaccination rates rise across Canada and people reconnect with loved ones.

People are reconnecting after pandemic separations as restrictions ease

Jude Hannah was thrilled to finally hug her 97-year mom Susanne, right. Vaccinations and easing restrictions meant the pair were able to hold hands for the first time since in over a year. (Submitted by Jude Hannah)

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After 384 days of window visits and no physical contact, Jude Hannah was thrilled to finally get to hug her 97-year mom Susanne, who lives in a long-term care home, and hold her hand.

"She squeezed my hand, she brought my hand to her lips, she kissed my hand — and she looked at me and she started to cry," Hannah, who lives in Vancouver, told The Current.

Hannah said her mother has advanced dementia and had struggled with pandemic isolation. She often remained silent during the pair's socially distanced window visits. 

"She doesn't always know exactly who I am, but she knows a hug. She remembers what a hug feels like, Hannah said.

That first hug in April, after they had both been vaccinated, was like "every Christmas day as a child, times 1,000," she said.

"I get goosebumps just thinking about that, because I was so worried that I would never get the chance."

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, but hugging is making a comeback as vaccination rates have risen across Canada and people reconnect with loved ones. 

Last month, the Public Health Agency of Canada issued guidelines that greenlit hugs between small groups in an outdoor setting (even if all parties are not vaccinated, but are comfortable to share a hug). Fully vaccinated people were also given the OK to hug indoors, while unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people were advised to consider the risks associated with a COVID-19 infection. 

Those first hugs might be overdue, but they're also good for overall health, says Suzanne Degges-White, chair and professor of counselling and counsellor education at Northern Illinois University.

"The magic thing about hugs is it's an emotional overload, it's a physical overload, and it is just a sensory overload of joy," she told The Current's guest host Mark Kelley.

"Hugs are able to lower our blood pressure, they slow our heart rate, they calm our nervous system," she said, adding that they also spur production of oxytocin, a hormone involved in social bonding.

"When we haven't hugged for so long … it's almost like an oxytocin flood in our bodies because it feels so good."

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Toronto resident Jonathan Appotive certainly felt that bond when he drove to Ottawa to visit his parents, sister and nieces recently after a prolonged pandemic separation. 

"As soon as I parked, my two nieces Lauren and Emily ran up to me, gave me huge hugs," he said.

"In fact, my youngest niece said, 'I'm going to squeeze you so hard, I'm going to break your bones.'"

Toronto resident Jonathan Appotive is shown hugging his nieces Lauren and Emily recently after a prolonged pandemic separation. (Submitted by Jonathan Appotive)

Touch vital for social connection: expert

Appotive said it was great to see his family in person after so long spent on video calls. 

Many Canadians have relied on virtual communication with loved ones through the pandemic, as social distancing and travel restrictions have kept them apart. 

Degges-White said those extended separations and reduced physical contact can have a negative impact, and there are links to anxiety, depression and sleep disruption.

"When we don't get that hug, that attention, that affection from others, we feel isolated," she said. 

She likened physical contact to taking blood pressure pills.

"You take it every day and you feel all right; you stop taking it and symptoms show up. And that's what happened for everyone last March."

But she said humans are "amazingly flexible," and the joy that comes with a hug can help to make up for the pandemic gap.

"[Hopefully] those feelings will overshadow any kind of remaining negative effects of this year," she said.

The heart wants 'big old bear hugs'

But cases of COVID-19 persist and not everyone is vaccinated. Degges-White said people should bear their health in mind when deciding if they're comfortable going in for a hug.

But ultimately she thinks people will return to hugging without fear of illness. 

"I think we may be more aware of risks involved, they might be part of our upper-level thinking," she said.

"But when it comes down to the heart, I think folks are going to need to continue to connect with those big old bear hugs." 

In Toronto, Cindy Graham and her friend Margaret McKellar went 16 months without a hug.

"I didn't realize what a loss it was, the lack of touch," said Graham.

She joked that she was always a hugger before, but now her friends and family will have to watch out.

"I will always now hug when I arrive and hug when I leave if people are comfortable, because you never know when it is going to be the last time."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ryan Chatterjee and Kaity Brady.

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