The Miraculous Love Drug

I got a letter from Lucinda, a retired nurse. She lives alone. No kids. Her husband died 12 years ago. Each week she volunteers in the hospital neonatal ICU.

“My job is to cuddle babies,” she says. “It’s the highlight of my life.”

Simply put, Lucinda cradles babies in her arms and loves them. That’s her official task. In neonatal units around the world, volunteers like Lucinda do this whenever mothers cannot be present. This is a very important duty.

Lucinda explains. “Without physical touch, babies die.”

This is because babies are humans. And all humans need touch, otherwise we fail to thrive. Which is why mortality rates in orphanages are 30 to 40 percent.

“The reason I volunteer,” says Lucinda, “is because babies need hugs and so do I. I live alone, I self-isolate, so these are the only touches I get.”

Which leads me to my first question. How many times have you been touched within the last 24 hours?

Take a moment. Think about it. Once? Twice. Not at all? Well then, how long has it been? Weeks? Months? Years? Somewhere around the installation of the last pope?

Before the pandemic you were touching others more often than you realize. Everyone was.

You’d go to lunch with friends and receive two hugs and four handshakes. Attend a barbecue at cousin Ray Ray’s house; 11 hugs, and a triple hug from Aunt Myrtis. Your niece’s wedding? Hug-a-palooza. Sundays at church? Mass huggings.

But that’s over now. America is not getting ANY hugs during this pandemic.

I have a letter from Alison, in Boston, who writes, “It’s been 10 months since I’ve hugged my mom.”

Here’s another from Ron, in Alexandria, Virginia. “I haven’t had a hug or a handshake in over a year…”

Lillian in Alpharetta, Georgia, says, “I’m a single girl, it’s hard to meet anyone during a pandemic… Sometimes I just want someone to just put their arms around me.”

I’m not trying to be Donnie Despondent here, but right now things are bleak in the hug department. And it only looks like things are getting more lonely.

Recent studies are showing that roughly four out of five Americans are missing physical touch right now. And if that doesn’t bother you, here’s another little gem: social isolation increases a human’s chances of dying early by 26 percent.

But enough numbers. After all, I’m no scientist. The closest I ever came to actual science was my fifth-grade science-fair project in which my cousin Ed Lee and I observed the effects of bottle rockets on residential mailboxes.

So as research for this column I called an actual doctor to get more of the science behind this human touch business. To do this, I consulted the phone directory and started dialing numbers. Here is what one nice doctor said to me:

“I’m sorry I don’t have time for this.”

So I called another doctor who answered his phone, and said, “I don’t know who you are, I’ve never heard of you before, I don’t feel comfortable talking to a stranger, please make an appointment if you want my professional advice. I’m very busy.” Then he hung up.

But the THIRD doctor was great! He actually heard me out and let me interview him. He had a voice just like Cheech Marin.

Here is what he said:

“Well, it’s not complicated, really. Touch is important to the human body, for all ages. Our skin is more than just skin, it’s our largest organ, and like any organ it communicates with your brain.

“The outermost layer of your epidermis is made up of billions of cells called keratinocytes, and these cells play a role in telling your brain that you are being touched.

“Those keratinocytes release ATP, a chemical that tells the brain, ‘Heads up! We’re being hugged!’ And your brain starts releasing feel-good chemicals.”

Doctor Cheech went on to say that the first chemical your brain releases when you receive physical touch is oxytocin. And if you don’t know what oxytocin is, you’re not alone. I didn’t either. I had to ask the doc about it.

He laughed. “Oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It works like a love drug. As far as neurological stuff goes, oxytocin is the Cadillac of brain hormones.”

Oxytocin also lowers blood pressure, reduces cortisol levels, it is associated with feelings of trust, empathy, security, and it counteracts the harmful effects of daytime television.

“And listen,” added the doc. “It can also help prevent you from getting sick.”

A few years ago, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University intentionally exposed people to the common cold virus to study their immunity functions. They gave many of these participants hugs. Others, however, received no physical touch.

In a few days, the participants who had been hugging like crazy were found to be somewhat protected from infections. The others, who hadn’t been hugging, developed full-blown colds and these participants were probably quoted as saying: “This is the worst experiment I’ve ever been involved in.”

So hugs, we’ve just determined, make you healthy. Why do I tell you all this? There’s a very important reason. Because I worry about you. I mean it. I worry that you’re not getting enough affection. I worry that it’s been weeks since someone has touched you. I worry that you’re craving basic human warmth.

I don’t know where you live or what you’re going through. But I know this pandemic is hard, and I know you’re suffering right now.

So if you’ve read this far, I sincerely hope you are able to embrace someone today. Like your kids, your spouse, or a person you live with. If you live alone, then hug your dog. If you have a cat, well, good luck.

And if you don’t have anyone to hug, tell me. Because once this pandemic is over, I’ll change that.

I’m coming for you first, Lucinda.


  1. BJean - February 1, 2021 6:29 am

    Absolutely the truth! So well said, Sean.

  2. terrykerns - February 1, 2021 6:33 am

    Yes!!!! I am a believer in hugging, for real. No polite side hugs. I will start here in Texas and you and I can hug everyone till we meet up!

  3. Dean - February 1, 2021 10:19 am

    I miss getting to hug people. I am blessed i get to hug my daughter, son and his fiancé but I miss hugging people at church. I do hug my cat not as easy as a dog but guess he will have to do.
    Have a good day

  4. Tammy S. - February 1, 2021 10:58 am

    I’m a hugger. Touch is my love language. Just cannot help it when I see friends or family I automatically just go in for the hug. Have had a few people to hold up hands and hold off from hugging, but most people grin real big and say, “I just can’t not hug.” It just feels unnatural. Hugs to you, Sean & Jamie. Big hugs!!

  5. Nana - February 1, 2021 11:15 am

    Absolutely true! Maybe that’s another reason people have gotten so mean-spirited the last few months—no hugging!

  6. Cathy Boswell - February 1, 2021 12:07 pm

    Oh Sean, you’re a good man!! Lucinda, I’m a hugger and this pandemic has been hard! I’d be so happy to hug you, too!!

  7. Dr. Dennis Stalvey - February 1, 2021 12:24 pm

    Many years ago in seminary I had a pastoral care professor who introduced the following poem to us. I have used it many times in sermons across the years
    Minnie Remembers
    God! My hands are old.
    I’ve never said that out loud before, but they are.
    I was so proud of them once, they were soft like the velvet smoothness of a firm ripe peach.
    Now the softness is like worn out sheets or withered leaves.
    When did these slender, graceful hands become gnarled, shrunken? When, God?
    They lie here in my lap; naked reminders of the rest of this old body that has served me too well.

    How long has it been since someone touched me? Twenty years?
    Twenty years I ‘ve been a widow.
    Respected. Smiled at — but never touched.
    Never held close to another body.
    Never held so close and warm that loneliness was blotted out.

    I remember how my mother used to hold me, God.
    When I was hurt she would gather me close, stroke my silky hair and caress my back with her warm hands.
    Oh, God, I’m so lonely.

    I remember the first boy who ever kissed me. We were both so new at that.
    The taste of young lips and popcorn, the feelings deep inside of mysteries to come.
    I remember Hank and the babies.
    How can I remember them but together?
    Out of the fumbling, awkward attempts of new lovers came the babies.
    And, as they grew, so did our love.

    And, God, Hank didn’t seem to care if my body thickened and faded a little.
    He still loved it, and touched it.
    And we didn’t mind if we were no longer “beautiful”.
    And the children hugged me a lot.
    Oh, God, I’m lonely.

    Why didn’t we raise the kids to be silly and affectionate, as well as dignified and proper?
    You see, they do their duty. They drive up in their fine cars.
    They come to my room to pay their respects.
    They chatter brightly and reminisce
    But — They don’t touch me.

    They call me “Mom” or “Mother” or “Grandma”, never Minnie.
    My mother called me Minnie and my friends.
    Hank called me Minnie. too.
    But they’re gone.
    And so is Minnie.
    Only Grandma is here.
    And, God she’s lonely.

    • Betty F. - February 1, 2021 1:04 pm

      Wow! That will tear you up! Best give it to all young aspiring doctors. I remember as a former teacher when we no longer could touch the kids, what a loss. Teaching a new generation that it was not acceptable. :<)

      • Patricia Schwindt - February 1, 2021 10:31 pm

        I was teaching at a school for “at-risk” young people, and they warned me not to touch the students. Young folks at that age can easily get the wrong signals, they said. But I saw so much pain, so much hurt, and so much need for a caring touch that I determined to touch them anyway.
        I did.
        I laid a gentle hand on one young man’s arm as he was threatening me, and I talked about his grandmother and how she loved him. “Can you just think of me like your grandmother,” I asked him. From that day on, he was my protector in a rough environment. There were others, and I knew how to touch them in ways that could not be misconstrued. They responded like a mile-high waterfall, and I never had any complaints or problems with administration. Of course, there were some hard cases that I could not crack, and I left after about a year for a job in my career training But if I could’ve worked both jobs, I would have done it happily. It was enormously rewarding.
        If everyone in general needs human touch just to survive, think how much these thrown-away kids needed it, and much more.

  8. Jill - February 1, 2021 12:27 pm

    Yup, could use a hug big time. This is so true. You don’t realize it until it’s gone. Thanks Sean.

  9. Jan - February 1, 2021 12:33 pm

    Hugs and smiles are some of the best medicine known to man! We need more of both!

  10. Gay - February 1, 2021 12:44 pm

    You give me a virtual hug every morning when I read your blog, it is so important to my day. Thank you!

  11. Leslie in NC - February 1, 2021 1:01 pm

    Dr. Stalvey, that poem hit me deeply! It’s exactly the way I feel. No human touch for over 2 years as I live alone and am isolated from my family by miles and other issues with only a brief masked hug with my son back in October, but no skin to skin contact. Damn you, Covid! I too, look at my hands with wonder, no longer the soft skin like a ripe peach. Dry & withering due to age and hand sanitizer! I long for human touch, a warm hand on my arm, a hug, a kiss on the forehead. We all have that innate need for touch and many of us don’t get it even without a pandemic. And thank you Sean, for today’s column because you brought to the surface, painful as it is, what so many of us are longing for.

    • Betty F. - February 1, 2021 1:08 pm

      Sean- Better watch out- or start a waiting list… There are a lot of starving ex-huggers out there about to cut loose as soon as they are vaccinated.

  12. Barbara Dawson - February 1, 2021 1:11 pm

    Recent widow, 83 years old, isolated because of the pandemic, not only get no hugs but also rarely see a living being … I’m waiting, Sean.

  13. Keloth Anne - February 1, 2021 1:12 pm

    Well can I be second in line? ♥️🤗🤗♥️

  14. Joyce - February 1, 2021 1:31 pm

    I live with a cat named Princess. She may not be a hugger, but she asks me to pet her all during the day. She is God’s gift to me during this iisolation.

  15. Ted - February 1, 2021 1:41 pm

    So much truth! I could just hug you!

  16. Debbie Morris - February 1, 2021 1:46 pm

    Wonderful column! You are loved ❤️

  17. Tina Pynes - February 1, 2021 2:00 pm

    I told my husband and daughter yesterday how this pandemic is slowly killing me. We do need freedom to touch, to hug, to see people smile, to sit where we want, stand where we want without being lorded over every time we leave our home. Virtual hugs are not the same as real human interaction. God bless you all.

  18. Beverly King - February 1, 2021 2:06 pm

    There have been days when I crossed my arms and placed my hands on my own shoulders to give myself a hug, telling myself, “I’m here for you.” Sometimes you just have to improvise. 🙂

  19. Johnnie Blackburn - February 1, 2021 2:08 pm

    Thank you Sean. And ditto to all of you who have left comments. As a widow, I’m struggling with this big time. I am an extrovert and I’m sure I’ll never be socially-correct again after this pandemic because if you see me coming be prepared for a hug.

  20. Jeanne - February 1, 2021 2:36 pm

    For years our parish priest has said that many people over the years have told him the only time in a week that someone touches them is when we hold hands as we say the Lords Prayer at Mass. Obviously we haven’t held hands fir months so I at least make eye contact with those around us to make them feel reassured.

  21. Katy @ 9:38 a.m. - February 1, 2021 2:39 pm

    💖Great writing, Sean! We may have to see a professional massage therapist or chiropractor, but wearing masks makes it all possible.
    It is SO worth getting human touch, even it it’s just paying for a back rub for 10 minutes or 30 minutes of a massage! Just do it! 💜

  22. Megntally - February 1, 2021 2:48 pm

    Great post, Sean. But you failed to mention the suicide rate has skyrocketed. I truly believe REAL hugs could be the answer to this problem. Our young people have lost hope because they don’t feel loved. When a 7-yr old is on suicide watch…there is a big problem. I think its a Hug Deficiency. God loves you, Sean. And so do I!

  23. Bob E - February 1, 2021 3:00 pm

    Yes – absolutely – something positive to practice and perfect.

  24. Patricia Gibson - February 1, 2021 3:14 pm

    Since 99.6% of people that get covid survive, I hug people that are of like mine and go on with life. My heart aches for folks that have lost someone from anything. Good points Sean. Hugs to you ❤️

  25. Morton Vice - February 1, 2021 3:28 pm

    Like totally excellent Sean!

  26. Joanna - February 1, 2021 4:32 pm

    Amen, amen.

  27. Kim - February 1, 2021 4:41 pm

    Love this.Hugging is essential to life. I’m staying in but luckily I have my husband who has had to become more of a hugger living with me. Thank goodness our experiment was a success. Plus, I do have several furry friends who allow hugging at times. I am blessed.

  28. Laura Edwards - February 1, 2021 5:25 pm

    I am single and live alone but I’ve got two little dogs in my lap right now. They are GREAT huggers! I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. Well, not that anyway.

  29. Susan Carlin - February 1, 2021 5:28 pm

    Sean. When you get to New Jersey, stop by my apartment. In fact, to make it less freaky, just come to the parking lot. I’ll meet you there with a 2 minute hug…or longer.
    I am 72 yrs and 7 months old. (I have begun counting the months since the pandemic, like a little kid.)
    I rebel against this pandemic and hug as many people that I know ( and some I don’t, in the supermarket) who aren’t afraid that I am or might become sick. This pandemic is sickening, really.
    Recently I have had the daily opportunity to take dinner to a neighbor, 96 yrs old. Her regular “dinner” friend is hospitalized right now, and I am filling in.
    She has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember to shower. So, over the weekend I helped her get a shower and put on deodorant, body lotion, fresh clothes, etc. She was laughing because the gentle care took her by surprise, She called me Mom. (Yes, I am crying as I write this.)
    Yesterday, after dinner, I gave her a back rub and then did some reflexology to her hands. She again was giggling like a girl. She asked if I were coming back. I said, “Of course”.
    After dinner, before I leave, we hug.
    I’ll take my dose of the love drug, Oxytocin, as often as needed.
    Pandemic be damned.

  30. NancyB . - February 1, 2021 5:30 pm

    My household consists me and my two feline fur babies. As I was reading this and am now pecking out a comment on my phone’s keyboard, Gracie is cuddling with me on my lap and Scottie is sitting on the arm of my chair waiting for his morning cuddle turn. What a blessing they are in my life!

  31. Linda Moon - February 1, 2021 6:24 pm

    Approximately 8.2 pounds of cat fur from two awesome, hugging cats have landed on me since yesterday. Thank you for asking, “Donnie”. Even though I get lots of hugs, please put this Linda (sans U and C) second behind Lucinda. I’ve had your hugs, and there’s not a cat or a guy whose hugs can compare to your bone-crushers! My Guy and my cats won’t be jealous when I get another one from you!

  32. Beth Peterson - February 1, 2021 6:43 pm

    I have my dog for touch, and spend a lot of time massaging her (she has spinal damage and needs that touch as much as I do). And my grand dog comes almost every day when my daughter goes to work. But because she works out in the world (of idiots) we don’t hug. But just seeing her helps.
    I picked up the barn cat today that actually belongs to my neighbors but likes me better. She was cold and enjoyed some time in my arms. Then she heard a noise and sank her claw into my arm and jumped down.
    If you’re ever driving on I-40 in west Tennessee, you’re driving right through my farm. Between exits 93 and 87. Give a shout out to a lonely old soul.

    • Patricia Schwindt - February 1, 2021 10:39 pm

      Beth Petersen, I’m not driving on I-40 in your neighborhood, but here’s a shout-out for you from Texas. I’m so glad you have your dog, your granddog, and the barn cat. I also live alone and have practically dried up and blown away (at least emotionally) for lack of human contact. My granddog, a precious 18-year-old who lived off and on with me passed away in my care while her dad was out of state for his work. She was a wonderful companion.

  33. Bob Brenner - February 1, 2021 7:59 pm

    Nothing better than a loving hug from a grand child ❤️

  34. Judy Holley - February 1, 2021 8:35 pm

    Add me to your list of grandmas that need a hug. This plandemic is making people depressed & sick! Lord, help us end it soon!

  35. scpearson2013 - February 1, 2021 8:40 pm

    I know firsthand that you’re a card-carrying hugger because I was one of your hug recipients in Gadsden, Alabama not so long ago. You are a GOOD hugger, so I hope you get back in action soon.

  36. MaryEllen O'Rourke Frye - February 1, 2021 8:53 pm

    I love this!
    I watched the elderly die partially from lack of human contact and family.
    I am a nurse in the NICU and I appreciate all the cuddlers out there who help our babies thrive.
    Thank you for doing this piece and thank you for your writing.


  37. Darlene Vale - February 1, 2021 9:07 pm

    Wow, have you truly hit home with this one. I am 61, live alone and have to look at the receipts in my purse or transactions in my bank account to see when I left the house last. I MAKE myself wander from the house to run some mundane errand or grocery shop but really, it’s to get out of the house and SEE other people. Nope, can’t hug them. I MISS HUGS! I hugged a homeless young man at Walmart, early pandemic, brought him food from Subway and hugged him and prayed with him, holding hands and bowing our heads. NOW……there was so much peer-pressure-stress going on in my small brain because I knew passersby were questioning my sanity but here’s the thing….this 23 year old man really needed someone, anyone to let them know that they SEE him. Someone to show that they understand that he’s tried to get a job, without judging him. I did have on a mask when we were praying but he did not, was I foolish? I don’t know, did I get sick….no. Am I glad that I took the risk, without any doubt in my mind, and would I do it again? YES. We all need human recognition, we need hugs, we need eye contact (there’s tons of science about this too) and I’m so glad that you’ve nailed the need, desire, even thirst for hugs right down to a chemical reaction. How do we get back there, post-pandemic? Will we hug anyone spontaneously again? Will we hug a stranger without wondering if we’ll “catch something”? I pray and pray that we can return there! I am trained in NICO infant massage so I know the true value of touch as it indeed does offer a lifeline for those tiny humans in their little isolette life, cut off from their parents and this warm, loving world we used to have. Perhaps the neediness for hugs alone will be the compelling drive to return to this personal greeting. In the meantime, I won’t get a hug today, or tomorrow and maybe not until Mother’s Day when I visit my Mom with our small family group of four. So, Sean, I’ll be waiting for my hug. I’m likely to find you for one since I was going to attend your book signing before they all got cancelled. I live in Sandy Springs, GA. So I’ll be looking for my hug and hoping a book tour will happen again in the foreseeable, hug-loving, smile-visible future that we are all looking forward to! Thank you for being YOU! I’m a fan and I’m a hugger, clearly!

  38. Susan Kennedy - February 1, 2021 9:41 pm

    I miss hugs so much…

  39. Debra - February 1, 2021 9:57 pm

    I had a Dr appt today – haven’t had a checkup in a long time. It felt weird to be at a doctor for me instead of my husband, David. David died March 21, 2020 after 7 years of stage 4 cancer.
    When the doctor asked me if anything had changed, I burst into tears. it surprised even me. She was very kind, talked to me for a long time, and when I got up to leave, she asked if we could hug which shocked me. I said, I haven’t hugged anybody in ten months! She gave me a good one.
    Getting that hug was well worth getting stuck for a blood draw and having to pee in a ridiculously small cup.

  40. Helen De Prima - February 1, 2021 10:20 pm

    Italians are the best huggers. When I first met my in-laws-to-be, I couldn’t believe the instant expectation of exchanging hugs and kisses; I think it has something to do with the high blood levels of olive oil. Now I value those hugs with the few relatives we have left.

  41. Cheryl Andrews - February 1, 2021 10:44 pm

    Thanks for this! I think I can feel that hug from you!

  42. Christopher Spencer - February 1, 2021 10:59 pm

    My first hug in over a year was a couple of months ago from a waitress at City Cafe. She followed me outside to thank me for the tip I had left her. I thanked her for the hug.

  43. Rebecca Souders - February 1, 2021 11:04 pm

    Put me on the list please. I live in Oregon and when this terrible siege is behind us, and you are once again doing public performances, perhaps I’ll travel to one of those spots. Almost as much as hugs, I miss travel!

  44. Darlene Vale - February 1, 2021 11:22 pm

    Oh my goodness, my cats have come to me as if knowing that I didn’t mention them in my “hug requesting” post. They are sisters and I’m guessing that they might not be like the cats that you area accustomed to, Sean. They cuddle all night with me (maybe because my temp goes to 63 at night but I’m being positive about them, right?), greet me in the morning with nose bumps and very loud purrs (are they just hungry?) and they both sit in my lap while I watch TV which keeps me comforted and warm too. They move from room to room with me and keep me company. I am so very thankful for them and I’ve been talking to God about reconsidering how long our pets live. I already know that these two sisters will leave me here long before I want them to. They are jewels in my life and I must mention them……………even though they cannot HUG me!

  45. Russell Moulton - February 1, 2021 11:34 pm

    Lucinda for President!

  46. Cheryl - February 2, 2021 3:42 am

    God bless and big huge hugs to all of you. ❤

  47. Jennings Philip - February 2, 2021 4:02 am

    “Don’t that take the rag off the bush!”( From Doc Hollywood.)
    Thank you for exposing that great mystery! We are deeply affected by touch. I miss it.
    Keep up the good work. I get Lucinda after you. I’m a great hugger.

  48. Charaleen Wright - February 3, 2021 7:03 am


  49. Josie McCamish - February 3, 2021 1:26 pm


  50. Leslie - February 4, 2021 11:45 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I am a nurse and this pandemic is bad, but the emotional scares of isolation is far worse. My COVID patients as well as medical patients have broke down and cried to me over how alone they feel.

  51. Julie - February 10, 2021 11:44 am

    Looks like I’m 4th in line, after Lucinda, Judy and Patricia, for a hug, Sean❣️ Take your time…I have a feeling that you’re worth the wait💝


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