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Close to Home: To stay connected, try an eyeball hug

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There’s a lot about this COVID-19 that I don’t like. And they tell us that it will get worse before it gets better. So I’m mostly staying home, and when I’m out, I’m washing my hands and keeping my distance. But it’s harder than it sounds in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisories.

It turns out I’m a hopeless hugger. As are most of the people I see when I’m keeping my circle small. That’s why it’s so hard for us now that we’re not allowed to touch. In talking with friends and colleagues, we’ve acknowledged that we weren’t even aware of how much we feel compelled to reach out and pull someone in. These days, with all the hard news, those hugs seem more precious than ever, and our instinct when we meet a kindred spirit is still to dive in for a squeeze.

These times are stressful, and stress itself makes us more susceptible to infection. Scientists have long known that hugs and social support trigger our bodies to take care of themselves. A good hug can release a wonderful cocktail of stress-reducing hormones that can bring a sense of calm and relax our nerves, reduce our blood pressure and make our immune systems stronger.

Hugging is good for us. But we can’t. If we really care for people over the next few months we will stop touching them. What a concept.

But what else do we have? The joking fist or elbow bump, and with some folks a good old hip-connect — like in middle school when we learned to dance the hustle — is fun, and we need the laughs they generate. But they just can’t convey what we need to say.

We need to let one another know, “Hey. I’m so glad to see you. I’m holding you, and I hope you‘re holding me. We’ll get through this.”

So these past couple of days I’ve moved on from the fist bump and all those other bodily gyrations, and I’ve started asking friends to give me an “eyeball hug.” Just look me in the eye and hold it for as long as we would have hugged.

Awkward! Humans do not like extended eye contact — it feels threatening to some and a little creepy to others. But right now, we need a touchless hug that connects us and makes space for us to comfort one another.

With some people this eyeball hug is pretty quick — more like a look you might give your date across a crowded party when you catch their eye. That’s all some people can take. It can be too uncomfortable to hold that gaze any longer than a second or two.

Even with my best friend it feels a little weird to hold her gaze for more than the briefest bit of time, but as the seconds pass, I can feel my heart being heard, and I can see that she feels noticed and cared for, too. A smile tends to creep up, and then a laugh — and all the good feelings that come from a much-needed hug wash over us.

We can’t touch each other anymore for a while, but for our own good we’re going to have to figure out how get our brains to think we’re hugging anyway. Give the old eyeball hug a try.

Molly Wertz is a leadership coach and consultant. She lives in Forestville.

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