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Mike Anthony: Coronavirus has forced us away from hugs and handshakes and we're worse off for it

Mike Anthony, The Hartford Courant on

Published in Op Eds

Nothing really feels normal in this world of Not Anymore, even if some of the behaviors recommended or required are, ironically, starting to get old in how they inhibit interaction, in how they go against the grain of the way we've lived ... forever.

Most of us know to wear a mask, know to avoid crowds, know to remain socially distant, know that hugs and handshakes have been replaced by elbow bumps and head nods -- or, as a recent personal experience went, a few hollers and waves across a dusty softball diamond.

Yes, The Courant has a team, a portion of which gathered with quarts of hand sanitizer and a few bats and balls to take some cuts at a Manchester, Connecticut, field the week before last. Upon my late arrival, I saw people from the old newsroom scattered about, some folks I used to interact with every hour, others I used to pass in hallways, still others whose workflow I'd have particular fun disrupting upon approaching their cubicle with an asinine observation or a flick of the earlobe.

I saw my friends.

And it was weird.

Because after four months, of course I wanted to grab some shoulders, shake some hands, slap some backs.

That doesn't fly anymore, though, for we're engaged in a joint effort of a most important, and impersonal, nature.

It's 2020. July or something. The world is upside down or inside out. Wouldn't you like to hug your buddy or grandparent or anyone who means a great deal to you but is no longer part of your everyday life?

"We've done a survey, internally, at Hartford HealthCare, and what we are seeing is what we expect -- anxiety, PTSD -- but (also) more depression," said Pat Rehmer, the president of HHC's behavioral health network. "The hugging and handshaking is very interesting because we do know that touch is very important to people when it comes to mental health -- and hugging in particular, actually. ... I hope we don't have to (avoid) that forever. It's such an important part of our culture. But I don't see when that's going to end."

Merriam-Webster defines a hug as, "to press (someone) tightly in one's arms especially as a sign of affection."

Wikipedia tells us "A hug is a form of endearment, universal in human communities, in which two or more people put their arms around the neck, back, or waist of one another and hold each other closely. If more than two people are involved, it may be referred to as a group hug."

Group hugs, bear hugs, celebratory hugs, condolence hugs, bro hugs, encouragement hugs, pat-the-back-hugs, squeeze-awhile hugs, quick hugs ... all of these platonic hugs no longer an option, all of us just staring at each other through a computer screen or from a distance, hopefully finding ways to get the most out of personal interaction at a time when current conditions push the bounds of mental health. The lucky among us have access to a loving hug with a significant other or children, even pets.

Hugging has been shown to have positive mental and physical health benefits. Hugs feel good. They're reassuring, comforting, all that warm stuff. They used to be, anyway. Now in most scenarios they're dangerous or at least somewhat irresponsible.

The pandemic fallout is powerful, beyond the virus' obvious damage. The extrovert is scratching at the walls, craving interaction. The introvert may be just fine, content with a stay-put approach to work and play. Those prone to isolation might find themselves at further risk. Those with any sort of mental health issues might see those issues exacerbated. Some might be of harm to themselves or those around them. Addicts don't have access to in-person counseling. Many of us are alone to contemplate problems we can't necessarily solve by ourselves.

"There are long-term repercussions from this in behavioral health is what we are really trying to prepare for," Rehmer said. "In my mind, the next pandemic is going to be behavioral health."

The list for how we're all impacted by what we began living in March goes on and on.

 

"If you feel like you have to wash your hands all the time under normal circumstances, can you imagine what this is doing?" Rehmer said.

On a lighter note, how are "close talkers" adapting to 6 feet of distance? Certainly I don't miss those interactions.

But on a darker note, Rehmer said the World Health Organization has estimated 75,000 eventual suicides, in addition to normal projections, related to pandemic despair. That is staggering. Hopefully it is inaccurate.

What we know for sure is that this new reality that feels old already is impacting all of us, every day, in a variety of ways, from those needing a hug to those unable to properly grieve the loss of family members to children in their formative years denied certain steps in social development that is part of the educational backbone. Sports canceled, weddings postponed, graduations altered.

We're all together in this fight.

And we're all alone, at least more so than we're used to.

I have it easy. Pandemic protocols have been inconvenient, not debilitating. Still, I wouldn't mind the occasional hug from a friend or a step-father I miss. The emojis or GIFs don't cut it. Nor does a phone call or a Zoom meeting, though it is important to maintain, through persistence and creativity, one part of interaction that hasn't been eliminated -- the conversation.

It would be awkward to hug now, right? It's also awkward not to. Even handshakes, a societal norm for so long, are a distant memory. Still, there are habits. During an introduction to a future family member that was a long time coming this past weekend, I did what I was taught to do and what comes naturally. I stood up and shook his hand -- and immediately thought, "Oops."

"My daughter for Mother's Day, she surprised me (with a visit)," Rehmer said. "Of course I wanted to hug her and she was like, 'Stop, you can't.' It is a very strange time. ... Your typical (person with) no prior, preexisting psychiatric diagnosis, we're still going to see people very much struggle with the isolation they experience."

This is all difficult ... to wrap your arms around.

About The Writer

Mike Anthony is a sports columnist for The Hartford Courant. Email: manthony@courant.com.

(c)2020 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com

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