Psychologist warns lifting ban on hugging creates 'social minefield'

Don’t be too hasty to hug! Psychologist warns that many people have mentally ‘opted out’ of physical contact during the pandemic and that embracing people is now a ‘social minefield’

  • Dr Lorna Bourke is principal lecturer in psychology at Liverpool Hope University
  • Urges friends and families to establish boundaries before rushing in to hug
  • Says lifting of hugging ban on May 17 will create a ‘social minefield’ for some

A psychologist has warned against being ‘too hasty to hug’ because there will be huge numbers of people who’ve mentally ‘opted out’ of physical contact during the pandemic. 

Dr Lorna Bourke, principal lecturer in psychology at Liverpool Hope University, says the lifting of the Covid-19 hugging ‘ban’ on May 17 will create a ‘social minefield’ for some.

She is urging friends and families to establish boundaries before rushing in for the big embrace.

It comes as research by AO recently revealed the UK is a nation of huggers, with almost two thirds admitting they have missed physical contact during lockdown and 32 per cent claiming the lack of hugs has been one of the hardest things about the past year. 

A psychologist has warned against being ‘too hasty to hug’ because there will be huge numbers of people who’ve mentally ‘opted out’ of physical contact during the pandemic (stock image)

Speaking ahead of a relaxation of restrictions in England next week, Dr Bourke told FEMAIL: ‘We know from research that a hug can trigger lots of different physiological reactions, from the release of oxytocin, which is linked to bonding and trust, to the cognitive benefits of turning something called “emotional dysregulation” into feelings of calmness and lower anxiety.

‘But we also need to consider the psychology of a hug, not just the physical dimensions.

‘And as rules are lifted on May 17 I’d urge people to pause and really think about what’s the best strategy for behaviour in this unprecedented situation.’

Dr Bourke, an expert when it comes to developmental and educational psychology, says that with social distancing in place for so long, the idea of physical contact will seem jarring for those who’ve grown comfortable with their own space.

She explains: ‘There are very real cultural and personality determinants to assess here.

Research by AO recently revealed the UK is a nation of huggers, with almost two thirds admitting they have missed physical contact during lockdown (stock image)

‘For you, a hug might be the most natural thing in the world, and the perfect stress buster as the horrors of the pandemic begin to fall away.

SAGE scientist warns embraces should be kept to a minimum

Don’t hug too often, keep embraces short and avoid face-to-face contact, is the message from No10’s cautious scientific advisers ahead of the next major relaxation of Covid rules.  

Boris Johnson will announce England’s next steps out of lockdown at a 5pm Downing Street press conference today, where he is expected to confirm that friends and can hug each other again from May 17. 

Professor Cath Noakes, who sits on SAGE, has urged caution ahead of the relaxation, warning that too much hugging could ‘perpetuate’ Covid’s spread. 

She advised that if people are going to hug others, it should be restricted ‘to very small numbers of close family who perhaps you really value a hug from’ and suggested wearing masks to be safe.

‘I think don’t hug too frequently, keep it short, try and avoid being face-to-face, so perhaps turn your face away slightly, and even wearing a mask could help,’ she told the BBC. 

Professor Noakes, an expert in airborne infections at the University of Leeds, backed allowing vaccinated grandparents to hug their grandchildren, claiming that the risk of transmission was very low, even though it was not zero.

But she said it would worry her if ‘we were advocating we could hug all of our friends every time we meet them again’. 

This would ‘perpetuate an awful lot of additional close contact that could spread the virus’, she added. 

‘But there will be a great many people who have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to opt out of everyday intimacy. 

‘They might feel like they are no longer required to engage in the potential social minefield of hugging, and that might have been a real relief to them.

‘You can’t assume that people will want to be hugged, particularly if they still harbour fears about the virus itself.

‘And remember, people often find it difficult to spur someone’s advances when it comes to a hug because they do not want to offend them, particularly as the hug is likely to be well-intentioned.

‘The important thing to ask your friends and family this week is, “What are you really comfortable with right now?” Laying that groundwork will potentially protect someone’s emotional wellbeing in the long run.’

Earlier this week Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid out plans for the easing of coronavirus restrictions, with the public given the ‘choice’ as to whether they wish to remain socially distant from friends and family.

Pub-goers will no longer have to sit outside while theatres and sports stadiums will also begin to be reopened.

Mr Johnson added: ‘This doesn’t mean that we can suddenly throw caution to the winds. 

‘We all know that close contacts such as hugging is a direct way of transmitting this disease. So I urge you to think about the vulnerability of your loved ones.’ 

Dr Bourke has also previously warned about the ‘expectation versus reality’ nature of post-pandemic life in Britain.

Speaking earlier this year, she said: ‘If your life wasn’t making you happy before the pandemic, the same complex troubles and concerns will be there once more when restrictions are lifted.

‘For me the danger is in mentally building an imaginary, post-pandemic false utopia.

‘Many could fall into the trap of setting unrealistic expectations for all the things they’re going to do, all the connections they’re going to make, and how they’re going to spend lots of time with friends and family

”But as we all know, things don’t tend to pan out that way. It’s wise to really temper expectations and be aware that, even with restrictions lifted, you’ll face plenty of bumps on the road back to normality.’ 

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