Coronavirus has human beings losing touch with, well, touch.
At our core, we’re hard-wired to give and receive interpersonal touch. But our relationship with tactile connection, even at the most platonic level, has evolved overnight to stall the spread of COVID-19.
Initially, handshakes were replaced with elbow bumps. Then those contacts were deemed too risky. Now, with many states still under stay-at-home orders, physical encounters with strangers or friends feels like a thing of the past. Some people have been left completely isolated, unable to touch anyone at all for over a month.
As the pandemic continues, this lack of in-person contact can put your health at further risk.
“There’s really two categories of detriments when the level of affection is inadequate. One is more psychological or emotional,” says Kory Floyd, Ph.D., a professor of communication at the University of Arizona and author of “The Loneliness Cure.” “But there’s also very much a physical component.”
Research shows that interpersonal touch, whether patting a friend’s arm or cuddling with a lover, improves physical and emotional wellbeing. One recent study suggested that simple displays of affection like hand holding can enhance attention and performance. In a review of the research, scientists from Carnegie Mellon University found evidence linking affectionate touch to stronger immunity, fewer physical discomforts like aches and insomnia and better psychological health.
Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, studies the therapeutic benefits of touch at all stages of life. Her research has shown again and again that touch is beneficial to human physiology—it can lower the heart rate, decrease blood pressure and aid in stress relief.
When humans don’t get enough touch, they can experience a state of deprivation called “skin hunger”, which Field calls “a metaphor for people feeling as though they’re not getting enough touch.” This state can lead to a variety of health issues, including restless nights.
“When you don’t get enough touch, you don’t sleep well,” says Field. Her team studied the effects of different types of physical stimulation, like therapeutic massage and hugging. Because touch is relaxing, individuals who receive these kinds of touch tend to experience deeper, more restorative sleep.
“When you don’t sleep well enough it becomes a vicious cycle,” says Field. “It hurts your immune system.”
Sleeplessness can also lead to an avalanche of psychological dangers. Floyd says emotional weariness, limited exercise and growing stress levels “interact to affect overall wellness.”
And in close relationships—including during quarantine—a lack of physical affection can cause or worsen feelings of loneliness.
“It would be like being deprived of food or being deprived of sleep,” he says. “Everybody understands how detrimental those are. Loneliness has the same magnitude of detriment, just on a different time frame.”
In the age of COVID-19, the remedy is complicated. Opportunities for safe physical contact remain slim.
Yet even those living alone or isolated from friends and family can find ways to stimulate the skin—and reap the physical and emotional benefits.
Floyd suggests snuggling with a pet. Research shows interaction between humans and animals can help alleviate stress. Those without pets can cuddle with a pillow or try self-massage, either on the hands or the neck.
“Your brain distinguishes from self-touch and touch you receive from others,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean self-touch can’t have similar kinds of benefits.”
Connection of any kind during this period of uncertainty is important. Whether you are taking a socially distant stroll or shopping for groceries, Field says there are safe ways to acknowledge others, even complete strangers.
“We can smile, say hi. If we have a mask on, make eye contact,” she says. “Something to just convey that we’re all still connected with each other.”