Touch Deprivation Explored
One of the greatest impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is that people just don’t casually touch one another anymore. You might not think it’s important if you’re married and have a family, but what about if you’re single and living in isolation? Touch deprivation can lead to serious deficits in mental health.
The pandemic has reminded us all of the value of platonic casual touching. You know, the handshakes after a business meeting, the hugs with your neighbor because you helped with the recycling bins, or belly hugs with your bros after your favorite team scored a goal. These are some of the things that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away.
Fist bumps and head nods can’t substitute physical touches like hugs, handshakes, and caresses when it comes to regulating our mood. Touching and interacting with others is such a necessary part of human life that one of the worst punishments for prisoners is solitary confinement.
For some people, the pandemic has forced them into similar conditions where they never go outside, never interact with other human beings, or receive platonic casual touches. Skin hunger is taking a toll on our collective consciousness.
What is Skin Hunger?
Skin hunger is the intense longing for physical contact and the emotional connection that comes from touching one another. Our skin is the largest organ of our body. Our sense of touch is extremely important. We need it much more than any other sense to survive.
When we touch others, our skin stimulates the nervous system and sends important signals to the brain. Some of those signals are for simple things like recognizing texture, temperature, and pressure. However, a gentle caress or a hug can set off a chain reaction of impressions in our brains that releases dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. These are the feel-good chemicals of our brains.
The Link Between Touch Deprivation and Loneliness
Physical touch lowers level of the stress hormone cortisol. This is the fight or flight hormone that also contributes to anxiety and stress when overactive. So, just touching other human beings keeps cortisol from building up and causing people to have crippling anxiety, depression, and other misalignments of mood.
In 2014, researchers at Carnegie Melon University released the findings of a study on the power of touch. In the study, four hundred adults were exposed to the common cold. Those who received regular hugs from trusted individuals had a lower rate of infection. Either the physical contact itself or the support derived from hugging led to less severe physical illness.
In a separate study out of John Hopkins University, a professor of neuroscience found that children who weren’t regularly comforted through touch had significant developmental problems. Those problems included delayed cognitive development and increased aggression. The findings were readily apparent in children, but these effects are observed in adults, as well.
Feelings of loneliness can be related to physical cues from the environment. One of the biggest physical cues from the environment comes from how and how often we touch others. A report from a 2020 issue of the scientific journal Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology addressed the connection between loneliness and touch deprivation.
Participants in the corresponding study who didn’t receive regular human contact felt lonely and isolated. Participants who were exposed to regular physical contact reported lower levels of social neglect.
Even among individuals who come from cultures and societies where touch isn’t highly valued, participants showed greater levels of loneliness when social bonding was neglected. On the other hand, Latin American cultures and some European cultures use touch as a common form of greeting.
This can be in the form of a kiss on the cheek or a platonic hug. It’s part of their culture and something that is deeply ingrained in the way that people within these cultures and societies interact with one another. Take this away and you’re left with entire populations of skin hungry individuals. Social distancing measures put in place to stem the spread of COVID-19 have failed to compensate for this side effect.
How Did We Get Here?
We’ve lost a lot of things as a result of the pandemic, not all of them were apparent right from the onset. Touch deprivation is one of those slow burns that crept up as the weeks became months and the months became years. We shut ourselves away in our homes and gradually our circles of interaction got smaller. For some people, the fear of contracting the coronavirus came with crippling anxiety about touching other people.
Related: Finding Romance Behind The Facemask
People were already touching each other less even before the pandemic. Rigid guidelines on workplace interaction, increased online activity, sexual misconduct scandals, and other societal phenomenon have greatly curtailed the presence of touch in normal platonic situations. When you put a viral pandemic on the coat tails of these measures, then you have a situation where people are already suffering a deficit in tactile stimulation.
Why is Touch So Important to the Human Body?
We have developed various coping mechanisms to help us feel less anxious or more balanced during the pandemic, but there is something about touch that is hardwired into our DNA. Humans are social animals. The sense of touch helped us to survive in groups. This can be observed in primates, as well. The act of physical grooming and stroking during high stress situations is a part of primate social regulation. Touch modulates our emotions on both a behavioral and a chemical level.
Our skin is full of nerve fibers that give us information about our environment. Some of those fibers relay information to the brain about sensations of heat, cold, and the dangers that are present in the environment around us. Yet, other nerve fibers register the pleasurable aspects of physical contact.
These nerve fibers, C tactile afferents, send signals to the brain that help us regulate our mood. When your loved ones give you a hug, your skin stimulates a process that reduces cortisol levels and boosts the feel-good hormones in your brain.
As humans, we might not recognize the importance of touch, but we certainly feel its absence. Without hugging for bereavement or to reduce the feelings of sadness, there’s nowhere to download the negative emotions that we’re experiencing.
The old adage – a shoulder to cry on – isn’t taken literally anymore, but that shoulder is an important component of the comfort we need from friends and family. By physically engaging with someone, we’re sending the signal to our brains to release the pressure valve of stress, to essentially reset our cortisol levels.
Ways to Cope with Touch Deprivation
When social distancing forces us to neglect physical contact, our bodies are put under strain to find other ways to make us happy. That’s why so many people lean on alcohol, drugs and other easy fixes to compensate for touch deprivation.
There may be an uptick in the coming years of cuddling therapists and rent-a-cuddle services. These strange occupations already exist for the skin hungry, but their popularity is almost certain to grow once platonic touching is much safer.
One of the ways that people can substitute touching our loved ones is by watching people touch each other. That might sound a bit strange, but through a process called vicarious touch we can witness touch and feel the same emotions. Just as we feel pain when we see someone getting hurt.
In response to this yearning for human contact, Jimmy Kimmel Live posted a strange yet satisfying video to their YouTube page. It’s a 10-hour video of people touching each other. If you’ve been missing out on physical touch, then maybe you’d enjoy watching it, too.
Touch helps people to manage high stress situations and the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly put a lot of stress on people. It’s illuminated a need that most people either forgot was important or found other ways to compensate for. Yet, our nervous systems are working overtime to process all the stress of day-to-day living without the mechanisms that were hardwired into our DNA to help us cope.
Physical attachments are integral to our existence. Our sense of touch isn’t just providing sensations, it almost acts as an emotion in of itself. Touch is much more visceral than verbal communication. Its absence leaves a deficit that is hard to substitute.
Yet, you can increase your level of eye contact and deepen your bonds with friends and family. Check in with people around you. Exercise gratitude and empathy whenever you can. Try not to allow your loved ones or yourself to fall into long bouts of physical isolation.
There will be a next chapter to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s important to make sure that touch deprivation doesn’t become part of the new normal.