At first, staying home during the coronavirus pandemic felt really doable for me. In fact, it felt like something I was well prepared to handle.
I had been working from home full-time for months before that suddenly became the norm. My Toronto apartment is a safe, cosy spot (for which, thankfully, I’m still able to afford the rent). Plus, I’m naturally the type of person that cherishes alone time.
I am really lucky, and I was doing fine — until I realized that quarantining solo meant that I haven’t had physical contact with anyone since March 11. More importantly, it will likely be months until I am able to hug anyone again.
Saying that realization out loud made my voice quiver and my eyes well up.
I’m a hugger by nature. My family and most of my friends greet each other with warm embraces. Sometimes it’s in celebration, or as a source of comfort, but often, we hugged simply out of convention — which I now feel like I took for granted.
“There are lots of ways that people touch that we don’t even notice,” said psychologist Heather MacIntosh, an associate professor at McGill University. Shaking hands with a new acquaintance or rubbing someone’s shoulder — those are all ways of connecting that benefit our well-being.
The power of touch is well researched and has been linked to benefits including strengthening relationships, lessening stress and bettering health, even in cancer patients. And, to put it plainly, touch (when it’s consensual and wanted) makes us feel good.
“When you move the skin, you stimulate pressure receptors under your skin and what that does is slow your nervous system so your heart rate is reduced, your blood pressure is decreased and your brain waves actually change in the direction of relaxation,” explained Tiffany Field, founder and director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s School of Medicine.
This leads to a reduction of the primary stress hormone, cortisol, said Field, and can also increase levels of serotonin, the body’s natural treatment for depression and pain.
MacIntosh added that the reason the benefits of touch are so wide reaching, from lowering blood pressure to helping with depression, is because touch activates our vagus nerve, which is connected to most of the major organs and is considered key to overall well-being.
Take matters into your own hands — literally
For those quarantining in groups, such as families, Field said the pandemic may encourage people to get off their devices and reconnect — within public health guidelines, of course. “I’m actually hoping that the large population that are within families are going to get more touch during this period,” she said.
For those of us living solo (Hi, hello!), we’re already experiencing less touch than others, and the pandemic could make things worse. Zoom and Google Hangouts are great for staying connected, but MacIntosh warns that we often forget these aren’t real interactions. “It’s me looking at a picture of you looking at a picture of me,” she explained. So, what can we do?
“People who are living alone, they’re going to get less touch from others, so they have to provide it for themselves,” said Field. In other words, we have to literally take matters into our own hands.
Field, who is also currently sheltering-in-place by herself, suggested trying self-massage to make sure your skin is still being stimulated and moved. Use your hands, or if that feels awkward, try a tennis ball, and massage with moderate pressure.
In the shower, use a loofah, long-handled brush or soaps with exfoliants in them. These seemingly routine practices can move the skin and save it from being deprived of stimulation, she said.
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MacIntosh cautioned that our brains know when the touch is coming from someone else versus when it is self-touch, so giving yourself a foot rub is never going to have the same impact as receiving one from a partner.
But, we can seek out the benefits of touch through other methods, she said, such as singing or watching comedies to help boost oxytocin, a hormone that helps us feel good and helps us bond with one another, or going for long walks to stimulate the vagus nerve.
“Doing some yoga, meditating, these are all things that are not the same as touch but they stimulate the same parts of the brain and the same chemical systems,” said MacIntosh.
Essentially, these experts both encouraged me to not just sit at my computer all the time — which, frankly, is what I’ve been doing. After these interviews, I tried squeezing my shoulders and as much of my back as I could reach, massaged my feet and went for a long walk.
That evening, I watched Netflix while stretching, rather than splayed out on the couch. I don’t know if it’s because I needed to exercise in general, or whether it was because I needed to move my skin, but I will say that at the end of the day, I felt better than before, and I intend to continue these practices.
“For me, a bear hug from my dad is my light at the end of this pandemic — yet, in the back of my head, I wonder if that embrace will feel reckless rather than providing a sense of relief.”
There’s a term in touch research called “skin hunger,” which sounds super gross, but Field explained is simply a metaphor for people not getting enough touch so the skin is really “hungering for movement.” With that in mind, anthropologist Zoë H. Wool said it’s important to remember that what we crave in terms of touch varies based on the individual. She explained that “giving up touch means different things to different people based on what touch has meant to them in the past.”
The assistant professor at Rice University said that for many people, such as individuals on the autism spectrum, being physically touched by others is often undesirable in the first place. Those who weren’t big fans of hugs or being touched in the first place may not miss these expressions just yet, if ever.
For others, greeting friends with a hug or a kiss on either cheek is an ingrained cultural practice. Taking that away now can therefore feel “wounding.”
For me, a bear hug from my dad is my light at the end of this pandemic — yet, in the back of my head, I wonder if that embrace will feel reckless rather than providing a sense of relief.
According to Wool, we can’t know whether our acceptance or sentiment towards physical touch will be changed by the pandemic until we’ve lived through it. Until then, MacIntosh advised being aware of the repercussions of not experiencing touch and taking steps to stay as healthy and well as possible.
“[Physical distancing] is what we have to do to care for one another, but don’t forget to care for yourself,” she said.
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