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The Power of a Hug

May 17, 2020 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

What have you missed the most during this terrible time of quarantine and self-isolation?

There is a remarkable story that took place toward the end of World War II. An American soldier’s platoon liberated one of the Nazi death camps. The camp was filled with hundreds of half-starved children. The American soldiers quickly set up a huge pot of soup to feed the kids, and the children lined up behind it, eager to get their share of the precious food.

One particular soldier made eye contact with a boy at the end of the line who was waiting patiently for his soup. The American approached the boy, and since he couldn’t speak the boy’s native language, he communicated by offering the boy a warm hug. After they finished hugging, the soldier looked up and noticed that the children who were previously lined up for the soup had postponed their chance to eat and instead formed a line behind the soldier to receive their hugs as well.

There are times when hugs are more needed than food, when an embrace is more satisfying than sustenance. Our bodies require calories but our souls have to feel the warmth of touch and of love conveyed by a loved one.

King Solomon, the wisest of all men, long ago taught us in the book of Ecclesiastes that there is “A time to embrace and a time to cease from embracing” (Ecclesiastes 3:5). The sequence is significant. There may be good cause at times to cease from embracing. Surely a plague is one of them. But we dare never forget that human contact is an ideal – an ideal which may have tragically been all too often unattainable in these last few months during the fearsome attack of coronavirus.

“I haven’t been hugged in months,” said a close friend to me over the phone. “I can only imagine lying in a hospital bed, fearful of death, with no one to hug you.” There are no words to describe what it must’ve been like for the woman who had tested positive for the virus and given birth without being allowed to hold her newborn infant for weeks on end. I remain haunted by the image of a 90-year-old great-grandmother looking through her nursing home window separating her from her loved ones, not knowing whether she would live long enough to ever again hug them or kiss them.

One of the things we need to take away from these difficult months of deprivation as we return to normalcy is to never again fail to appreciate what we previously so very much took for granted.

Who would’ve guessed how much power there is in the humble hug?

In a remarkable study published in the scientific journal Psychological Science, the authors investigated the relationship of hugging, social support, and the probability of getting sick in 404 volunteers from the Pittsburgh area. First, the volunteers were called every evening for 14 days and asked about their social relationships, whether they had been hugged that day and how often. On average, there was a clear relationship that individuals who had been hugged more also felt like they received greater social support.

Studies show that hugging is an effective way to reduce stress and infection risk by conveying social support.

Now for the even more interesting part of the study: Some time after the phone interviews had been completed, the volunteers were invited to an isolated floor of a local hotel and were quarantined in separate rooms. The investigators then gave them nasal drops containing a virus that caused common cold-like illnesses. Interestingly, how often somebody had been hugged clearly influenced the infection risk. Volunteers who had been hugged more had a decreased risk of infection. Moreover, among volunteers who got infected, those who had been hugged more had less severe symptoms, their noses were less stuffy. The authors concluded that hugging is an effective way to reduce stress and infection risk by conveying social support.

The common cold does not seem to be the only disease affected by hugging. Cardiovascular diseases are among the leading causes of death in the United States and in many other countries. One of the major risk factors for developing potentially fatal heart disease is high blood pressure – and hugging has been shown to reduce blood pressure in a 2005 study published in the scientific journal Biological Psychology.

Having witnessed firsthand the dire consequences of our inability to embrace our loved ones, give extra hugs to those who surround you, and when life returns to normal, let us embrace this powerful and much-needed communication with our loved ones.

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