THE FACT OF THE MATTER
Doris Roberts gave the best hugs I have ever known. Tight and fierce, and sincerely felt. Doris and her family were refugees evacuated to their native north Wales when the Germans bombed Liverpool. The only hotel in Prestatyn was unable to offer wheelchair access to Doris and her nurse.
My great aunt Kathleen and her husband had left Dublin in 1938. Jack Greaney died just before the outbreak of the war leaving my aunt a widow, without children, living in a big house by the Welsh coast where my family and I would later spend the long, hot summers of my youth.
After Doris’s family were returned to Liverpool my great aunt, serendipitously, was to take Doris in and look after her, her every need, for many, many years. It was a love at its finest.
Doris, still a young women when she came into my childhood, was physically and mentally challenged. She suffered from what in those days was termed spasticity. Doris had congenital damage to her brain, spinal cord and motor nerves. Her legs and arms were twisted limbs, her vocabulary little or none — about five or six words — but she was the smartest human I would know as a child — she could spot a pin on a patterned carpet a mile away. And she was most loveable, with a passion for peppermint creams and watching the pioneering days of horse racing on TV. And she was that great hugger of me and my siblings, the ‘babas’, squeezing the living daylights out of us, her feelings knowing no bounds.
For many, what we’ve missed most during the pandemic is being able to hug loved ones. Now, with the vaccines and the restrictions easing, we are learning to hug again. And not only do hugs feel good — they also have many health benefits.
The reason hugs feel so good has to do with our sense of touch. It’s an extremely important sense that allows us, not only to physically explore the world around us, but also to communicate with others by creating and maintaining social bonds.
Touch is the first sense felt in the womb (around 14 weeks). Pediatrics tells us that from the moment we’re born, the gentle, frequent caress of a parent promotes the growth of brain cell connections.
When someone hugs us it induces a cascade of ‘neurochemical signals’, including the hormone oxytocin which plays an important role in social bonding, slows down heart rate and reduces stress and anxiety. The release of endorphins in the brain supports the immediate feelings of pleasure and well-being derived from a good hug.
Hugging benefits our health in other ways. It improves sleep — that parental goodnight hug. From the benefits of sleeping with infants to cuddling your partner, gentle touch is known to regulate our sleep, as it lowers levels of the hormone cortisol, a key regulator of our sleep-wake cycle.
In the outside world, social touch — handshakes, bear hugs in sport — helps maintain relationships by releasing those endorphins, making us see hugs and touch as ‘rewarding’.
As my psychologist friend from Magherafelt says: “Touch provides the ‘glue’ that holds us together, underpinning our physical and emotional well-being.”
And when touch is desired, the benefits are shared by both people in the exchange. In fact, even stroking your pet can have its benefits — with oxytocin levels increasing in both pet (see that tail!) and owner.
Hugging, I have recently learnt, could help fight off infections by regulating the hormones oxytocin and cortisol. Whereas high levels of stress can suppress our ability to fight infections, close, supportive relationships suggest the opposite, even cuddling in bed protecting us from the common cold!
While it’s important we continue to keep ourselves safe, it’s equally as important that we don’t give up on hugs for ever. Social isolation and loneliness can neither be healthy nor, indeed, natural. Human touch is instinctive. We should celebrate its return.
POSTSCRIPT: As a grown and young married man, I went to see Doris Roberts one more time. Well in her 70s, she had outlived her family and my great aunt and was in a nursing home. She was alone by the window when I walked into the conservatory.
“Doris,” I called, and she looked up, her toothless face breaking to a broad smile.
“Baba,” she cried as I walked towards her.
Despite the intervening years, her now old, still twisted arm went right round my grown waist and she hugged the living daylights out of me, one last time.