THERE will be tears and laughter when many of us finally throw our arms around each other again from tomorrow.

But after a year in and out of lockdowns, how has this lack of contact affected us and what will it mean to be able to hug our extended family and our friends again?

Psychologists believe it will come as a huge release.

Dr Sandra Wheatley, a chartered member of the British Psychological Society, believes that hugging is vital to our overall health and that the lack of it can be extremely harmful.

She said: “Hugs are phenomenally important. They’re one of the most efficient ways for us to communicate our feelings to each other, whether we’re a child, a toddler, an elderly person – we all interpret them the same way. It’s something that goes across cultures.

“It’s the best way for someone to know that we care for them, that we’re on their side, that we want to look after them, that we’re happy for them to look after us too.

“That transmission of emotion is something we all really need.

“The irony of it is that one of the worst things about the whole Covid situation is, for so many people, that when they most needed a hug they’re not supposed to.

“So it was a double kick in the solar plexus.”

Wheatley wonders too if there might have been a way for us to have carried on hugging through the last year.

She said: “We’re all aware that cleanliness is a good thing and minimising contact stops the spread of these things but also it stops the spread of love and affection.

“I don’t really know whether hugging would have been something that would have transmitted diseases. I think that actually hugging among your good friends, in your bubble, I don’t think that can be a bad thing.

“You need to be a little bit cautious, you need to think about these things, but I do think they’re interbalanced and I welcome the fact that people are now going to be encouraged to hug those that they want to hug.”

Elderly and vulnerable people in particular have felt the lack of a hug acutely during the past year, with Wheatley saying: “For a lot of elderly people, verbalising emotion can be very difficult.

“It can be very difficult for them to find the words, because that’s not the way they’ve been brought up to be, but a hug is pretty much universally acceptable.

“And then, if somebody has had a stroke and they find it very difficult to remember, to speak, then that can be incredibly hard.

“But to be able to just lift your arm and place it on somebody else’s arm, the warmth that you transmit is sending those beautiful waves of emotion through that person.”

At both ends of the spectrum of life hugging is especially evident – and one of the most visual signs we are returning to normality will be when grandparents embrace new members of their family for the first time.

WHEATLEY said: “I know people who have grandsons and granddaughters born during lockdown but they still haven’t held them.

“And the fact that they’ll be able to hold their kith and kin again is just phenomenal. It almost makes your head spin with pleasure.”

Dr Audrey Tang, a chartered member of the British Psychological

Society chimes with her colleague when she says: “We produce oxytocin which is the bonding hormone which makes us feel better, builds trust and strengthens our sense of our relationships which is really important particularly at a time when we’ve been so isolated.

“It exploits something called neuroplasticity and what that is is that although our brain functions in a certain way, if we habitually practise certain habits we can actually change the way the brain functions.

“The more we practise gratitude, the more oxytocin we produce and the more those parts of our brain fire up. People who have more social

support, in other words people who tend to hug more, report things like feeling better about themselves, having a happier outlook on life.

“It has been shown that hugs lower blood pressure, and it’s been noted that people who have a strong support network, they tend to live longer as well. 100%, hugging is good for the general health of the nation, because research has shown that people who are happy will always cite social contact and social relationship as reasons.

“Being able to boost our mental health by a hug is just an added bonus to feeling well. If you can now engage in it again then yes it will totally boost your mental wellbeing.”

Family therapist Virginia Satir has even put a figure on how often we should hug a day and quantifies how much happiness we derive from each embrace.

SHE said: “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”

As we return to hugging each other, experts believe that that in itself may be a challenge as we have got out of the practice of hugging.

Advice from the corridors of power to be careful has us all wondering how far we should go with our hugs.

Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes herself told a BBC Question Time Zoom audience that she favours the side hug.

Wheatley is hoping though that we don’t hold back when we finally embrace and while as a nation we may have a reputation for being reserved that that might change going forward.

She added: “People may decide to be more open, to be more huggable, to be a huggee and a hugger.

“So when somebody comes to you and goes to put their arm around you, instead of pulling away or feeling awkward, literally embrace that affection – although we’re not going to be walking up to strangers and dancing down the street kissing everybody.”