How do we communicate Valentine’s Day when we cannot get close to each other?
We know about love of spouses, parents, children, family, friends, pets, and even ourselves.
However, in this crazy world we are confronted by the fact that we have not seen much love during the past year. Somewhere amidst the turmoil of the pandemic, Covid statistics, social distancing and the lack of human touch, love has become scarce. Wearing masks that hide our facial expressions and feelings is contrary to what we need to connect to each other.
We have become separate in our thinking: families, friends, towns, cities, states and even countries are approaching the pandemic with different strategies. We now see only the differences. Children are being brought up afraid to touch or be near grandparents. We are told we put others in danger if we don’t follow the Covid protocols. We have lost touch with our humanness and inner connection to Love.
Touch is fundamental to the human experience. It is an essential component of socio‐emotional, physical, cognitive and neurological development in infancy and childhood. An important form of nonverbal communication throughout life.
The absence of love may not cause us to die, like the absence of food, water or oxygen. But inside, something else dies. And it may be the reason someone chooses to give up, emotionally or physically.
As we practice social distancing to prevent the community spread of Covid, platonic physical touch among friends and colleagues is off limits. Hugs, high-fives, friendly pats on the back or anything that breaches the six-foot rule are now taboo. The scarcity of love in our society is becoming more and more evident.
If we haven’t figured it out yet, physical contact with another person is very important. Whether we’re among those who need multiple displays of affection daily or those who simply need a hug per week, human contact is one of our basic needs. It’s a soothing way for us to signal safety and trust. Without it, our physical and mental centers are thrown out of whack.
When touch is limited or eliminated, people can develop what is termed touch starvation or touch hunger. Touch hunger impacts all facets of our health and has been associated with increases in stress, anxiety and depression.
We are wired to touch and be touched, so it’s stressful for us to not experience physical contact.
Asim Shah, M.D., professor of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, says; “When someone is touch starved, it’s like someone who is starved for food. They want to eat, but they can’t. Their psyche and their body want to touch someone, but they can’t do it because of the fear associated with, in this case, the pandemic.”
Touch starvation increases stress, depression and anxiety, triggering a cascade of negative physiological effects. The body releases the hormone cortisol as a response to stress, activating the body’s “flight-or-fight” response. This can increase heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and muscle tension, and can suppress the digestive system and immune system—increasing the risk of infection.
Due to social isolation and the stress and anxiety around Covid, many people are suffering silently from touch starvation.
“People who are stressed or depressed, because of lack of touch, will have problems sleeping. Every single medical disease including heart attack, diabetes, hypertension, asthma—every single physical disease—is altered if you are more anxious, more depressed or if you have more mental health issues,” Shah said.
He added, “going an extended period without positive physical touch can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Positive touch, positive health
Positive human touch is an integral part of human interaction. Whether it’s a warm embrace, a reassuring hand on the shoulder or one arm linked through another, physical contact is a large part of how we show concern and establish camaraderie with friends and loved ones.
When we hug or feel a friendly touch, our brains release oxytocin, a neuropeptide involved in increasing positive, feel-good sensations of trust, emotional bonding and social connection, while decreasing fear and anxiety responses in the brain at the same time. For this reason, oxytocin is affectionately known as the “cuddle hormone.”
When a child is born, touch is how they bond with their mother. Our wiring system has touch integral throughout our bodies.
Our desire for physical contact starts at birth. A mother of a premature baby in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit), is asked to hold the baby on her chest a few times a day. We know this bonding, this human touch, is important for the growth of that child.
A study in 2013 found that touch was the most important nonverbal behavior in the nursing profession when treating older patients: “In old age, the tactile hunger is more powerful than ever, for it is the only sensuous experience that remains."
As adults, touch helps regulate our digestion and sleep, and even boosts our immune systems. Hugging can help our bodies fight off infections, according to a 2014 study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.
For some people, Covid restrictions meant staying at home with loved ones. For many more, these restrictions meant being isolated and alone for weeks or months with no physical contact with family members.
As the nation grieved in the days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, strangers embraced and held hands to give and receive the ancient comfort of touch.
In the pandemic year of 2020, though, millions of people were fighting the coronavirus by withholding touch. The result has been a global experiment in ‘touch starvation’, the full outcome of which will not be known for years. Touch is an important ingredient in the human experience, and the lack of touch can affect physical and emotional wellbeing.
“In the absence of love, we begin slowly but surely to fall apart.” Marianne Williamson
The Mother of All Senses
Biologically this speaks to the primary importance of touch in life, over and above the other senses. In fact, touch is the one sense that you cannot live without. When you think about it, that’s the one thing every person on this planet has in common: some degree of tactile sensation.
Michelangelo is quoted as saying: “To touch is to give life.”
While nothing can wholly replace the benefits of positive human touch, virtual alternatives can help alleviate the effects of touch starvation. We have to be creative in finding ways to take the place of touch. Take a moment to think about it.
If one sense is lost, areas of the brain get rewired processing other senses. We’ve all heard of cases of people who are blind, who have developed above normal hearing and other senses as compensation.
We have to learn how to use our other senses to make up for this loss. Wearing masks does not allow facial expressions to be seen. We have to rely on our eyes to show our compassion, understanding and love. Using our voices, we can choose friendly and loving words for our colleagues or neighbors. Locking eyes tenderly with an elbow knock can express deep feelings.
We can have almost the same impact if we connect by video chat—whether it’s FaceTime or Zoom. We may not be able to engage in physical touch, but we need to learn to experience our love for each other through our other senses.
“The ONE thing that links us all regardless of culture, language, geography, sex, etc. and the ONE thing that we cannot live without – is TOUCH. Understanding this at its most foundational level is a huge key to health, happiness, creating a sense of connectedness with others, and forming lasting relationships. Compassionate touch is one of the most profound influencers of empathy and developing connections and relationships with others.” -- (Drew Hume, “You Cannot Live Without Touch”)