DYING TO BE TOUCHED
I think we can all agree, it’s been one hell of a year. Our lives have been completely disrupted, with so many of the things we love to do off limits- what have you missed the most? writes Dr Julia Sen
Something that may not immediately spring to mind is the physical contact with others we took for granted before the pandemic struck; the handshake with a business associate; the warmth of the greeting hug with friends and family, the delight of tickling a giggling nephew or niece. For those living in a bubble, there has at least been opportunity for regular physical contact but many people living alone have been deprived of human touch for over a year. This “touch starvation” is associated with a higher risk of feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety and poorer general health. It appears that touch is a basic human need.
Why is touch so important to our wellbeing?
As social creatures, we need touch in our lives to convey love, trust and acceptance. It helps us socially bond, reinforcing friendships and enhancing working relationships. Research in the professional sports arena found that teams who engaged in the most high-fiving, hugging and back slapping during play achieved the highest scores, and it’s not just a human behaviour; other primates perform grooming rituals believed to promote social bonding. Apart from the obvious de-lousing benefits, the sensory pleasure of being touched in this way is probably akin to the bliss that is having your hair washed at the salon – something else we’ve all missed this last year!
Is “starvation” too strong a word?
Apparently not. Touch deprivation can literally be a matter of life and death. Kangaroo care is a method of nursing first described in the 1970’s after low birth weight babies nursed with skin to skin contact for large portions of the day were found to have a higher chance of survival than infants who remained in their incubators. This close contact allows the baby is to feel it’s mother’s warmth, smell her skin and hear her heartbeat, familiar from the months resident inside her, promoting bonding and the reducing stress levels in both infant and mother. It’s well recognised that mother-child bonding is adversely affected when frequent physical touch is absent in the first few weeks of life. From those earliest days, the habitual physical contact we have within our families determines our attitudes and behaviours towards touch as adults; how tactile we become and how comfortable we are with being touched. Those who have experienced unwanted or inappropriate touch as children often continue to feel uncomfortable with physical contact, the effect of which can negatively impact their adult relationships.
The massive changes which have been imposed since the first lock down in March 2020 have disrupted our normal social and working routines. Working from home has become the new going to work and whilst they may be enjoying the time and expenditure freed up by not having to commute (not to mention the indignity of playing sardines on public transport) many miss their former working environments, the camaraderie, gossip, buzz, sense of collective purpose, and the casual physical contact previously taken for granted. Technology has been so successful at allowing individuals to work remotely that the perceived need for face to face engagement has been largely negated, so we are unlikely to return fully to our previous working habits. Even before the pandemic struck, social media had become a pervasive influence and not necessarily a good one. Research has shown that time spent on social media platforms correlates with feelings of isolation, dissatisfaction and depression. The combined effects of more people than ever now living alone, working from home and “socialising” through technology reduces our opportunities for physical contact, to bond with and feel loved, accepted and valued by those around us. This may explain the sudden rise in pet ownership in the last year. The love, companionship and physical contact people have with their pets provide the same positive physical and mental health benefits as human contact (without the complexities!)
Whilst the human cost of the virus may be quantifiable in terms of those infected, we may never know the full extent of the harm resulting from touch starvation. I am hoping that although we will have to continue to socially distance for the foreseeable future, we can now at least look forward to a time when we can once again hug, shake hands, play team sports, and generally get up close and personal once again – we will all feel much better for it. As for me, I can’t wait to get back to my dance classes and being in hold with my fabulous dance partner, Tim.