Humans have an innate need for social interactions, including physical touch. Touch is vital for a person’s wellbeing. As the Covid-19 pandemic mandates social distancing, many of us are left touch starved. What are the consequences, and is it possible to compensate for this deficit?
From hugs to handshakes, there are so many ways we are used to interacting with others that satiate our need for touch without our being aware of it. And now we are having to change our habits to limit the spread of the coronavirus. However, person-to-person contact is a basic human need, and without it the isolation many of us already experience only gets worse.
Science helps us understand why social support and human contact are essential for physical and mental health, especially in times of stress and uncertainty.
Touch is the most primitive of all the senses. It is the first sense to develop and is already present from just eight weeks of pregnancy. Premature babies who receive massage therapy gain significantly more weight and spend less time in the hospital.
Scientific studies also show the developmental importance of physical contact during childhood, which, among other things, has been associated with:
better performance on cognitive and physical tests
a stronger immune system
Although the human need for physical touch is something we should be aware of, it is equally important to acknowledge that touching someone means being in their personal space (something we should never do without consent). Different cultures have different tolerances for physical touch. For example, the Finns are known to keep their distance, while Argentinians are more comfortable being close to one another.
Some people actually don’t like being touched at all. Haphephobia is an anxiety disorder that causes the affected person to be touch averse—being touched is unpleasant for them.
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The benefits of touch
Compared to children, young adults seem to be less dependent on touch, but older adults, who tend to be alone more often, are more vulnerable and more self-aware, and are likely to need considerably more skin contact than younger people. Many studies have demonstrated the positive effects of social support on health and well-being. Social support is roughly defined as meaningful relationships that provide compassion, caring, and security, while building resilience and positive self-esteem.
Feeling connected to others, especially through physical contact, can even protect us from the negative effects of stress. Strong social support and intimate physical contact such as cuddling can even protect against infection as it bolsters the immune system. Physical contact with a loved and trusted person stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which responds by calming and relaxing the body. In response to touch, the heart rate slows, blood pressure lowers, cortisol—also known as the stress hormone—levels go down, and the body releases oxytocin—the love and attachment hormone.
Simply taking the hand of someone who is in pain can help them get through a difficult time. And this benefits the giver as much as the receiver as touch is a two-way street, so to speak.
Even a gentle touch from a stranger has been shown to reduce feelings of social exclusion. This is very important to think about in the context of those that are predisposed to isolation, such as the elderly and socially awkward people. Men are typically much more touch-starved than women, which is in part because of the prevalence of unhealthy masculine ideals that discourage platonic touch.
Receiving physical affection from yourself is better than nothing. We comfort ourselves constantly—we rub our foreheads, wring our hands, brush our hair, stroke our necks. This also goes for sexual touch—masturbation can be comforting touch that serves to reduce stress as much as to satisfy lust.
Coping with touch hunger
A year ago, we might have suggested looking for platonic touch in the form of a massage, a pedicure or manicure, going to the hairdresser, taking dance lessons, or lifting weights in a gym with a coach. At the moment, activities like these are an unattainable luxury if we are to remain safe.
In the new reality created by the coronavirus pandemic, many of those most at risk for infection (people with disabilities, the chronically ill, and the elderly) are also forced to experience prolonged tactile hunger. In quarantine or self-isolation, these people, especially if living alone, suffer the most from lack of touch, as contact with children, grandchildren, friends and other relatives is denied.
A person who is suffering from touch starvation may feel overwhelmingly lonely or deprived of affection. These symptoms may exacerbate conditions such as depression, anxiety, stress, and difficulty sleeping. If you are getting desperate, reach out to someone. Even a kindred soul on the internet can offer some much-needed compassion, and there may be support numbers you can call.
Although remote contact does help with loneliness a great deal, it is clear that neither phone calls, online chatting, nor any interactive media can replace human touch. Human skin is unique and irreplicable. Often taken for granted, the skin is a highly specialized organ and our sense of touch is extremely sophisticated.
This is precisely the reason many people doubt that sex robots could one day replace real people—even the most technically advanced mechanism will not be able to replicate the sensations created by touching another person's skin, feeling its heat and smell. Even so, sex shops have reported increased customer demand for a wide variety of toys—including human-like dolls—during the pandemic.
So how can comfort ourselves when there is no one around to touch? Here are a few suggestions:
Think about pleasant times in the past that have involved physical touch. The human body is pretty good at emulating the real benefits of imaginary things.
Take a long bath or shower and feel the water running over your body.
Cuddle a childhood toy or swaddle yourself in a blanket—some people find that weighted blankets help with anxiety and restlessness.
If you have a pet, spend some quality time with them; stroking a cat, for example, is proven to be beneficial to both the cat and the person.
See what you have around the house: perhaps you have an exceptionally soft shirt you can wear, or a textured book cover that might be pleasant to run your fingers over.
Be extra loving to your body—give yourself a home spa day with a pretty manicure or a self-massage; do a set of exercises that leave you feeling relaxed and invigorated; or, if the mood strikes, masturbate.
Some people experience the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) when listening to certain sounds, such as whispering or brushing their hair.
These unique sounds stimulate the part of the brain associated with touch and connection. People who experience ASMR report feeling calm in both mind and body. ASMR is also useful tool for managing stress and helping those who have trouble sleeping. You can find these sounds on YouTube, Spotify, and other media platforms.
One more method you can try is keeping a journal or practicing stream-of-consciousness writing. Writing down your thoughts and feelings in a notebook helps you process those feelings. Other mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and breathing exercises, can be equally therapeutic.
For certain people, especially those of us used to presenting a strong, self-controlled persona, any form of self-comforting can feel embarrassing. It can help to think of it as a way of healing—you are helping yourself deal with stressful circumstances. There is no shame in that.
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