Hope is on the horizon for a vaccine that will protect us from COVID-19. But until the vaccine is widely available, and especially during the upcoming winter months, it is our responsibility to protect each other and slow the spread of the virus. That said, it’s challenging to stick to the safety protocols when we’re with our loved ones, because our biology is working against us. The culprit? A vital hormone called oxytocin.
Sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin facilitates attachment by urging us to snuggle and bond with those we love. Interestingly, oxytocin is also considered a stress hormone because it activates when we’re feeling challenged, fueling us to seek connection and support. This is a lovely part of the human design, but it’s extremely problematic during a pandemic. Knowing it will calm us, our bodies release oxytocin, triggering us seek the company and touch of loved ones—yet this could put us all in danger.
As you consider venturing out of your bubble during the holidays, remember that oxytocin will pull you to gather with family and friends, soaking up in-person connection and hugs. It’s difficult to maintain physical distance from people you feel emotionally safe with. It feels unnatural, like trying to smile with your eyes while frowning with your mouth. Your body will long to touch and be close with the people you love, especially during these stressful times.
Neither of my parents is in my bubble, and this makes my heart ache. My mother lives nearby but has been sequestered in her assisted-living facility. We’ve been fortunate to share regular visits in recent months, but it’s felt sad to be supervised, sitting six feet apart, being unable to touch her. My father lives elsewhere. When the case numbers dipped in both of our states, I went for a cautious visit. It was strange to wear a mask in his home and resist my longing to touch him. The protectiveness I feel for my parents is stronger than my desire to connect, but it’s really hard not to reach for the comfort of a warm hug.
By understanding the role of oxytocin in creating the desire for affection during stressful times, we can better override its influence and assure our loved ones’ safety by keeping our distance.
This holiday season, consider how you can be close to those you love—from afar. Use video and phone calls to connect while protecting each other. Being together at large in-person gatherings isn’t safe, because the familiarity of holiday get-togethers will amplify your affectionate urges and lower your guard.
Of course, it’s not each other we need to guard against. We team up together to guard against the virus so we can enjoy hugging each other during many holiday celebrations in the years to come.
Photo Credit: Hilary Cameron