We actually have a network of dedicated nerve fibers in our skin that detect and emotionally respond to the touch of another person — affirming our relationships, our social connections, and even our sense of self. Our bodies are designed to respond to touch. These nerves are, particularly attuned to three things: a light touch, gently moving, and around 32 degrees Celsius (89F). Which just happens to be human skin temperature. So, they are programmed to be most responsive to gentle caress from another person.
When I had recently hosted a small event of friends and family who obviously were a close tight-knit group, the reactions to the hugs, touches, and embraces were astounding. You could literally see their reactions, moods, and confidence become more and more enjoyable as the day went on. They seemed to grow happier and healthier just before my eyes. Watching them really lit up the entire room.
What happens when we are no longer receiving that touch that we all need and crave?
When the first week came of being told that we were constrained away from touch, I knew people would no longer know how to behave. I knew people would miss that feeling of personal touch. Personal touch is so important to feel love, energy and oxytocin.
Touch is embedded into the social structure of our lives and well-being.
Even a handshake or hug can make a person’s day brighter, better or uplifted after a stressful situation. We can help someone’s anger or sadness with a simple embrace full of comfort and care. The sensation of human touch can usually result in a feeling of comfort, acceptance, safety, ease and joy. These pathways of embrace lead to parts of the brain that deal with who you are and how you act socially.
Human contact is one of the fundamental ways we all can learn and grow to relate to each other. But to take it away is a huge change and intrusion into the “normal” lives we once lived.
Emotional Closeness is something that should not be forgotten. Even in a pre-pandemic world, we need to get back to the basics and feel that embrace that means so much. In a time when we all need that extra lift throughout the day, making this a priority is a necessity for today’s society. It cannot be permanently taken away.
We may not have fully appreciated it because we did not realize what it did to our moods, thoughts or emotions.
Until this pandemic, we have not had to be without this much needed touch or closeness (which it has been going for over a year with no end in sight). It is now taking a toll and the bad is catching up. Thinking about the amount of touch or the number of times a day we used to have that kind of human interaction seemed like it wasn’t a big deal. It was natural mostly and a great deal of us seemed to not even have a second thought about not hugging, shaking hands, or enjoying that firm embrace. Even just the slight touch of consideration on an arm or hand to show interest or love to one another. There’s something that feels very isolating and bitter about not be able to have any kind of opportunity for an embrace. It can possibly leave long lasting scars on many of us and our hearts. For people who have now been living without that connection for a long time, it can be incredibly difficult and saddening. Thinking of those with who have not been touched in a year at all, not even a handshake, is deeply concerning to me. I personally worry about how they are really suffering for it.
If you are like me, the form of touch (a lot of us all probably) miss the most, are hugs. They are particularly important for emotional and mental nourishment. When someone’s crying or upset and we embrace or hug them, we’re doing it to release comfort to those in need. It can sometimes allow them to let go and cry more. This will help them release some of the stress, sadness or anxiety they have been holding in. People can usually keep it together until somebody puts an arm out to hold them. That infamous hug represents safety and security. We know we can then trust that person because of the closeness and love we feel. Being able to hold a person you deeply care for who has just lost a loved one can be so important for appropriate healing.
The benefits of touch that we are missing out on are not just emotional and social but also physical. The human touch and embrace has been proven to also reduce pain and stress by creating a general feeling of wellbeing and happiness. Remember to support one another and ourselves when we need to go for extended periods of time without any social touch. Here are some ways we can all create some ease with the difficulty of living in a socially distant world without that much-needed closeness:
Cuddling an animal or pet can have similiar effects.
If you do not own one, now may be the perfect time to adopt, foster or rescue that furry baby. Some of these pets also need the love and affection you are craving to give and receive. If that is not a possibility, ask to pet sit or walk someone else’s!
Taking a hot bubble bath or shower.
Although it doesn’t elicit the exact same response to a human being, it can help make you feel warm, ease tension and relax your mind and muscles.
Make sure to check in with those whose are alone and REALLY check on them.
Making a point to at least stop by see your loved ones in-person or through a zoom or web meeting can be of assistance. While the monotony and frustration of the dreaded lockdown is a similar experience for everyone, being secluded from the regular physical closeness of family and friends is uniquely difficult and different for people who are alone. For the elderly, those who live by themselves, and those who are in high-risk of depression, it can be especially difficult. For these individuals, spending at least 15-20 minutes a day speaking can help you and them make the loneliness and depression slowly fade away. This will allow them feel like they have a place and purpose in this world.
Don’t be afraid of having a meaningful moment in conversation.
When taking away our social interactions, we can put more emphasis on certain meaningful and difficult conversations. It is important to make sure that when you do have a face to face meeting, look the person in the eyes. Really focus and listen to them as they speak. Ask how they are doing and if there is anything you can do to assist them in what they may be struggling with. Put your phone away and thoroughly be present. Have that meaningful conversation you have been putting off or have not even thought about having until now! Acknowledge their existence, especially if you know they are feeling particularly lonely or isolated. While these interactions don’t actually activate the same touch-based neural pathways as embracing the individual does, it still stimulates our social sense of intimacy and belonging that we all desire.