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Who Needs a Hug? We All Do.

Hugs can be like an infusion of emotional medicine when we're sad and a burst of celebration when we're happy

By Marcia Byalick

I've shaken hands hundreds of times in my life, but I've given thousands of hugs. Never having the kind of work life that demanded suits and high heeIs, hugging has always been my go-to greeting.

A grandparent being hugged at home by her grandchildren. Next Avenue,
Grandparents and grandchildren were eager to share a hug again after being separated during the pandemic  |  Credit: Getty

And lately I've been dreaming about them. Hello hugs. Goodbye hugs. Making-up hugs. Congratulatory hugs. Gratitude hugs. And no-reason-at-all hugs. Joni Mitchell had it right when she sang, "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?"

In these disorienting times I feel like I'm holding all this emotion in my body with nowhere to put it. There was actually a study where healthy adults were monitored for how often they hugged. Then they were quarantined and intentionally infected with a cold virus. Those who received more hugs had less severe disease. Counterintuitive, no? That those who receive more hugs are somehow more protected from infection?

Wholehearted hugs are like the opposite of drinking too much coffee. They turn down anxiety and melt away uncertainty.

Maybe if CVS dispensed comforting hugs through the years along with flu shots and shingle shots and vaccines and COVID tests, we'd all be better fortified to handle these challenging times. 

Wholehearted hugs are like the opposite of drinking too much coffee. They turn down anxiety and melt away uncertainty. They lessen grief and fear and heighten celebration; you can see all iterations at the airport. Oxytocin levels peak in dog owners whenever they hug their pets. And hugs are the centerpiece of every Hallmark commercial, especially the ones of returning soldiers surprising their families.

I remember stories of the damage done to the hardly touched babies in Romanian orphanages. And the touch-deprived elderly in hospitals and nursing homes over these last two years.

I think about Ukraine which barred most men between 18 and 60 from leaving. And millions of their mothers and wives and children struggling to survive these hard times, unhugged. We walk around knowing that physical affection feels good; we tend to forget its true value can be priceless.

Hugs Onscreen and In Real Life

Hugs are featured in some of my most vivid movie memories. Remember the ending of "ET"? The hug of betrayal in "The Godfather"? Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton at the train station in "Reds"? Forrest and Jenny at the Vietnam rally in "Forrest Gump"? The group hug in the last episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"? And to me the most heart wrenching one of all after which Debra Winger's character, Emma, told her mom, Aurora, played by Shirley MacLaine, in "Terms of Endearment," "That's the first time I stopped hugging first." Ahhhhh. 

Hugs have always come up big in my life. My father had a lot of faults but the fact that when he hugged me, I felt bulletproof, warms me still.

When I taught, hugs were one of the most rewarding parts of the job. I'll never forget the hug I gave my husband when he came home the night of 9/11. Or what seemed like a ten-minute hug my grandson gave me last year after months and months of separation. 

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One day this summer I was alone in an elevator that kept going up and down erratically and wouldn't stop for almost two minutes. The fear was excruciating. The next day a pot of boiling water caused second degree burns on my wrist. The pain was the most intense I ever felt. And the NEXT day, (sounds contrived, I know) I left the car running in my garage and when I got headachy, I realized the house was filling with carbon monoxide.

A good hug holds our pieces together.

Talk about needing some hugs. The ones I gave and received that week kept me from falling apart; they were like an infusion of emotional medicine, so powerful I still recall the surge of resilience they supplied.

Not all hugs are magical, of course. Aside from toddlers who run to you with open arms, it's not always easy to gauge how one will be received. Nowadays we have "consent mandatory" laws to ensure our private space won't be invaded by predatory hugs in the workplace.

Unfortunately, there's no such protection from overwhelming bear hugs and icky fake air hugs and awkward height difference hugs and the too many obligatory hugs when you leave a social gathering.

I recently read that if we live to 80, that's only 4000 weeks. That number seems even more finite when you consider the Great Pause has eaten up over 100 of them.

Our lives are determined by what we pay attention to. A good hug holds our pieces together. It's a powerful transfer of empathy. Which is why, although compromised, there were times I evaluated the risk and reward of being slightly crushed by someone I love … and wisely or not, chose the hug.

Marcia Byalick is an award winning essayist, reporter, author and memoir writing teacher. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, various women’s magazines and elsewhere, including anthologies. Read More
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