Remember the days when we used to greet each other with a big hug and that was socially acceptable? And as we start 2021, we continue this awkward zero-touch, safe distance style of greeting, our expressions hidden behind masks. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for health and safety, but I can’t help but wonder how does this fare for our long-term social interactions through elbow bumps and air kisses?
Breaking a habit is difficult at the best of times, but this is more than habitual, this is just human nature; our bodies naturally respond to touch, and not just on an emotional level, it’s simple physiology. Our sensory system is receptive to touch; a gesture of greeting, of acknowledgement, of endearment or reassurance, and ultimately human connection. Studies have shown the link between physical touch and the signal of trust and safety; it soothes by activating the body’s vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the rest of the body, signalling the nervous system to slow down, particularly in response to stress and an alleviated level of cortisol in the body. Which is also how we link the release of oxytocin, and how touch explains our natural compassionate response.
Which brings me onto the topic of hugging. The ‘hug hormone’ is a thing – that skin to skin contact, a level of closeness that triggers a physical and emotional response in our bodies through hormone release in the form of oxytocin, also known as the ‘cuddle hormone’ – associated with happiness and a reduction in stress. Our bodies are wired to engage, to interact, to embrace, and yet our newfound societal norms would dictate otherwise. Robin Dunbar, emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University says, “Physical contact is part of the mechanism we use to set up our relationships, friendships and family memberships.” And although most human communication occurs on a verbal level, or through facial expressions – particularly if your expressions are as transparent as mine, touch is another important way that people communicate and send messages to one another.
In a pre-COVID fitness world touch was a large component of cueing clients into correct movement patterns, something many of us have taken to a more verbal level, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you’re not into the touch style of cueing, but there is a clear difference between the trainer-client interaction of then and now. It’s interesting how we have taken to and prioritised other sensory systems to get a message across in class – for example, a fun metaphor or clever analogy. Our brains are being re-trained to interact in a more ‘socially acceptable’ manner and it’s interesting to see how adaptable we are at a sensory level. At the end of the day, people still want to work out, we still need movement specialists to guide us through our workouts, so for the clientele determined to keep up with their group classes, this is a new reality, and we simply make it work. We identified the importance of fitness early on in this pandemic situation, with those accustomed to working out seeing a huge difference in their moods when they stopped moving, and in turn, noticing tangible changes post workout, providing that well-deserved energy boost.
We will aways slip into old habits, as we greet friends, but I feel that this pandemic has cultivated a newfound respect for the simple things: understanding the value of your interactions and appreciating a simple embrace so much more. And maybe we have learned to achieve these hormonal effects elsewhere – through meditation for example, or by simply showing someone that we care, by losing ourselves to music that lifts us up, or spending more time (at a safe distance) with friends and family. I think we have become more attuned to our senses, to our needs as individuals, understanding when we are lacking in something vital for our human needs, which is so important – to understand the effects of lacking something essential, and finding an alternative source for things that bring genuine value to our lives, things that give us that tangible boost. I think generally being more mindful, more aware is one that stands out as a learning curve over the past year, and is certainly something that I intend to keep up. Let’s hug it out?