• In a post-hug world, how can we keep a sense of close connection with our friends and family from afar

  • Trainee counsellor Rosie Pullin explains counselling techniques can be used to cultivate this sense of closeness

  • Our therapists and counsellors are available to see you online – find your therapist here 

Of the ever expanding list of things we can’t do right now, hugging has gone unremarked. We observed the demise of the centuries old handshake with jocular, ironic elbow bumps, yet even that seems so quaintly 'last month'. Formality, safety and intimacy have always been coded through separation and closeness, even before 'social' and 'distancing' became a thing, but things have never changed so rapidly. How can we comfort each other through these nightmarish times when for reasons of safety, a cuddle is out of the question?

As a trainee psychodynamic counsellor touch is also a no-go, yet there are ways we are taught to hold through empathy and attunement, which could prove useful to a wider audience, or even to remember as we negotiate the move to a virtual - remote - way of working with clients.

If you are symptomatic or someone you love is, or bereaved but isolating, robbed of the one, natural comfort you could give or receive here are some ways the professionals manage to 'hold”' and be held:

1) Gaze

We all know that eye contact is important but we don’t know or forget why. Being held with the eyes was (hopefully) part of your early experience of being physically held, nourished and cherished. We replicate this throughout our lives with partners and friends. Looking and noticing is worthwhile and sustaining for both looker and look-ee. I won’t attempt a review of the neuroscience but if I did it would go here! If you can’t be together in person or at least see each other on screen there are other subtle signals of attentiveness.

2) Holding in mind

This is oft used industry jargon, but for a reason. It works. Call people, remember what they tell you and let them know in subtle or direct ways that you remember them and the things they hold important. Many occasions we would usually celebrate through togetherness are passing quietly by unnoticed. Yes we all have our minds on big things at the moment but try to remember the little things too. It will be reciprocated and this is as generous as a warm hug.

3) Words

Communication is multi-faceted but without the physical comfort of touch or being able to see and process non-verbal cues we rely more on words. One way professionals demonstrate their interest and understanding is to pay close attention to language, sometimes using the same words back and checking whether we attribute the same meaning. 'Tell me about it', has become synonymous with 'ok, enough, back to me', but one thing we have now is time to practice real communication, not just social niceties.

4) Consistency

As normal daily life is revealed to be a shadowy, precarious conceit our only consistency is uncertainty right now. Everyone seems to be advocating maintaining a routine of sorts but remember that for yourself and the people who know you, you already embody a sense of what is normal, expected, reliable. This is containing in itself. That being said, in the current climate you can allow yourself a wobble. What good is a time of flex if you can’t accommodate some change in your emotional repertoire. This allows for some shift in those around you. On that note...

5) Support

In the counselling profession we rely on a framework of support, which gradually becomes a part of us if we are to remain useful to others. Part of this is a kind of pyramid scheme of reinforcement, our own therapists, supervisors, peers and group analysts. I have heard the therapeutic relationship described as “two people in a room together, one of whom is more anxious than the other”. In the real world situation right now even the most “together” person may have moments where they need to fall apart and be reassured. Let your significant people know in advance that you consider this to be ok, necessary and healthy. It’s unlikely you will all experience these moments at the same time so take turns to be the solid, robust comforter, it doesn’t have to be the same person’s responsibility. You may find reserves you never knew you had.

We have always made use of social distancing for our own internal peace and stability, we just never had the language for it. In fact these questions of how connected, close, remote, distant we feel in ourselves and among others make up a large part of the anxious self investigation which brings people to counselling, and which distinguishes the therapeutic relationship as a unique change from the norm. It is one of the most intimate things you can do to attend to someone fully without relying on physical contact.

Further reading

How our relationships protect us against stress

Why the therapeutic relationship is so different

Self-care tips from an introvert: how to make the most of self-isolation

The three different types of empathy

6 ways to nurture your friendships