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You Can't Touch This: The Effect of Social Distancing on the Need for Physical Touch

*This post was initially a part of the COVID-19 and Mental Health (Part 1), but has been condensed into its own separate blog.

In a time when we are distancing ourselves from one another physically, it is important to consider how lack of physical touch can affect us. Humans are a social species and contact with others has been a necessary part of our survival. However, this extends beyond being in the presence of others.

Physical touch can actually be therapeutic. It increases level of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that regulates the pleasure and reward center in the brain and decreases anxiety (Jenkins, 2019). It also increases levels of oxytocin, which is a hormone that is known to help foster social bonding and connection (Pappas, 2015). Oxytocin is also important for feelings of compassion and developing trust. Lastly, physical touch can boost the immune system (Cohen, Janicki-Deverts, Turner, & Doyle, 2014) and lower blood pressure (Grewen, Anderson, Girdler, & Light, 2003). Yes, the same touch that is putting people at risk for spreading the virus can also be a form of healing.

Without physical touch, people tend to feel lonely, depressed, stressed, and tend to be in worse health. People can even develop what is called “skin hunger” when they have been deprived of physical contact (Degges-White, 2015). What will happen after weeks or months of physical deprivation?

Random fact: The average hug lasts 3-5 seconds. Most people go in for the hug, maybe give a pat on the back, and then step back. However, hugs can be therapeutic! After 20 seconds of hugging, the brain releases oxytocin, which plays an important role in strengthening social relations. It also triggers the release of serotonin. Family therapist Virginia Satir once said, “We need four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs a day for maintenance, and twelve hugs a day for growth.” How many of us get just one hug a day?

If I go one level deeper, hugging also allows people to connect their energy. Hugging allows for gentle pressure on the heart chakra and the solar plexus chakra. The heart chakra, located at the center of the chest, is the center for self-love and deep bonds with others. It allows us to recognize that we are interconnected and are part of something larger. Interestingly, when the heart chakra is blocked, individuals can develop poor circulation, high or low blood pressure, and other heart and lung conditions. On an emotional level, a blockage to the heart chakra can lead to an inability to trust oneself or others or feeling unworthy (Snyder, 2015). The solar plexus chakra is near the sternum. When activated, it stimulates the thymus gland, which assists in balancing the body’s production of white blood cells (Cohen, Janicki-Deverts, Turner, & Doyle, 2014) Likewise, when the solar plexus chakra is blocked, individuals can affect the kidneys, intestine, and pancreas. It can also lead to emotional problems, such as feeling powerless or ineffective.

I came across a blog article (Reeder, 2020) that echoed my point. Her blog explores the emotional conflict between wanting to keep her family healthy, but also wanting (and needing) to feel connected with them. She stated, “She said, “I haven’t touched my husband in 4 days. Not a kiss, not a hug, not a simple hand squeeze. I’m sick, and he’s not. And in the time of coronavirus, I’d really like to keep it that way. [...] Love is messy. It’s germy. We put our whole selves into it, and right now, nobody wants our whole selves.” I can fully sympathize with Ms. Reeder and the rest of the people who must self-quarantine in their own homes. The silver lining, however, is that she can be with her family. An article in New York Times’ claims that in China and South Korea, individuals who are infected are sent to stay in isolation wards in stadiums to prevent transmissions within families (Lyons, 2020).

At a time like this, everyone understands the importance of limiting contact with others, but what is it doing to us psychologically and physical? And just to be clear, I am by no means suggesting that we discard this advice. It will slow the spread of the virus. There is no doubt about that. However, if we take a step back and consider how isolation is affecting us at a deeper level, it is worth asking, “What can we do to keep ourselves connected?” Connection (physical and emotional) is a basic need; however, we have been asked stay in our homes and connect with others virtually. Although receiving a virtual hug or a heart is nice, it does not replace the real thing.

So, ask yourself (and your loved ones) what are you going to do today to connect with someone else? What simple act of self-care or love can you foster today, even in the midst of all of the ambiguity and and discomfort?

As I write this, I am whole-heartedly hoping that we can use this devastating event as a way to renew our connections with ourselves, our loved ones, and our appreciation for the little things.

Be well, and if you have an opportunity to give a hug to someone without endangering their health, I encourage you to do so-- for both of your sakes.

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