The real impact of not having been touched in months
What makes the coronavirus pandemic unlike any other collective tragedy is that we can’t commiserate together.
Post-layoff drinks at a dive bar near the office; embracing someone you haven’t seen in months; pats on the back — these are seemingly small comforts that have morphed into luxuries in the past few months.
While there are many things I miss about the Before, these touches of comfort are high on the list. As we round the corner into another month of social distancing I find myself thinking about touch constantly. One look at dating apps or porn sites and I know I’m not alone in that.
The phrase “touch starved” might once have sounded dramatic, evoking Victorian-era courting where couples couldn’t even bear witness to each other’s ankles. In a time where I haven’t high-fived let alone hugged someone in months, though, it doesn’t sound overdramatic at all.
While there’s limited research on “touch starvation” itself, according to , a practicing family physician in Phoenix, Arizona, there’s emerging touch research that emphasizes its positive impact. “Physical touch activates brain neurotransmitters that can lift our mood, reduce stress, and even improve sleep quality,” she said.
, clinical psychologist and author of , reaffirmed those benefits. “As humans we are wired for connection, and connection also means touch,” she said. “Touch with other humans is at the foundation of connection and an essential part of our being and forming healthy relationships.”
Unfortunately, many are currently going without any physical connection for months on end. A lack of touch intensifies feelings of isolation, said Dr. Mitchell Hicks, core faculty in Walden University’s program. When we can’t touch anyone it leaves the impression that we lack that connection we’re wired for, that we’re truly alone.
“For many, touch from a loved and trusted person increases their visceral sense of connection and soothes them,” said Hicks. “No amount of videoconferencing can really make up for that.”
It’s not just that touch gives the impression of connection, either. Touch actually has an impact on the brain. Humans deprived of connection experience a decrease in oxytocin — a hormone known to increase positive feelings — and a simultaneous increase in the stress hormone cortisol, explained . High levels of cortisol can lead to a , such as increased blood pressure.
“People suffering with touch deprivation report high rates of depression, anxiety, and insomnia,” said Parcells.
“People suffering with touch deprivation report high rates of depression, anxiety, and insomnia.”
Despite the consequences of lack of touch, there is good news. You can do something to help — and I don’t mean stopping social distancing. () The benefit of touch has to do with moving the skin, said Dr. Tiffany Field, founder and director of the said in an interview with . Moving the skin stimulates the brain. This means that exercise, such as yoga or dance, can produce some of the benefits we see from touch.
Furthermore, it’s okay to go months without touch if you’re taking care of your mental health in other ways, according to Bhuyan. While there’s no “real” substitute for human touch, there are activities you can do to give the same benefits.
While exercise can give you some of the physical benefits, it doesn’t do much when it comes to creating that connection with your loved ones. Bhuyan suggests exercising with a friend over video — while it seems silly, it can actually be beneficial. “The mutual body movement can create a powerful connection,” said Bhuyan. “It’s also important to invest in your own self-care and mindfulness.”
Parcells suggested any virtual meetup, not just working out. While it’s not the same as meeting in person, it still has a positive impact. Parcells said, “Research has shown that a virtual connection is about 80% as effective in increasing the release of oxytocin as seeing that same person face-to-face.”
Whatley reiterated, “When we connect personally with others via FaceTime we can release oxytocin and lower stress.” This is exactly the opposite of what occurs when we lack touch.
Another suggestion of Parcells has already been heeded by people across the United States: . “Time and time again,” said Pacells, “Studies have shown pets to be therapeutic during a stressful time.” Not only do they provide comfort, but they’re a tactile substitute for human interaction.
As monks have demonstrated over millennia, we won’t die from not having been touched in a while. There’s no direct substitute from human touch, but through exercise and speaking to our loved ones — even virtually — we can maintain some of these benefits. Maybe we don’t have to be touch starved; maybe we just need a little nosh.
(Copied from Mashable)
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