What All That Contact Deprivation Is Doing to Us

What All That Touch Deprivation Is Doing to Us

Back in June, a few hundred epidemiologists and infectious disease experts surveyed by the New York Times said it would likely take them a year or more to feel comfortable hugging or shaking a friend's hand. Thirty-nine percent said it would probably be three to twelve months. (Also noteworthy: many said they never shook hands anyway.)

Even for the non-epidemiologists among us, everyday touch has become a source of stress – and a negotiation of personal boundaries – in ways never before the coronavirus pandemic.

Some people have been left without touch for many months: it was one of the first things we were warned about, even before social distancing, masks, and stay-at-home orders became the new normal. Finally, its absence can lead to loss of touch, which can lead to health problems like anxiety and depression, according to Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, who holds a PhD. in developmental psychology.

Dr. Field calls touch "the mother of all the senses," and in her 2001 book "Touch," she argues that American society was dangerously deprived long before the coronavirus made it worse.

When asked which touch they missed the most, the answer was the same for everyone I interviewed: hugs. Anita Bright, 51, a professor at Portland State University in Oregon, who recalled being unable to hug a student defending her dissertation in early March, said she especially missed the closer, longer hugs that come with a reunion accompanied.

Jo Carter, 50, a project manager at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who lives alone, said she would get regular massages and pedicures before the pandemic to keep in constant contact. During the lockdown she was more moody and restless than usual, almost "hungry," she said.

Ms. Carter not only sleeps under a weighted blanket, but also cuddles the teddy bear she has had since elementary school.

Sarah Kay Hanley, 41, who works in Banking Compliance in Oregon City, Oregon, recently had a dream where she touched her friend's freshly shaved head that she saw on a video call. She immediately got a tingly, A.S.M.R.-like itch in her hands and remembered viscerally the sensation the tiny hairs cause.

"It feels warm and prickly when you rub in one direction and the other," said Ms. Hanley, who used to work as a hairdresser. People with humming heads rub your hand like a cat being petted, she said. She described deprivation of touch as "a feeling of being completely independent of how I physically felt".

For Jenna Cohan, 32, an advocate for domestic and sexual violence in Portland, Oregon, the memories have been continuous. She would see dogs go by in front of her window and constantly realize that she couldn't be outside and pet them.

Dr. Bright said it was not uncommon for her coworkers and students' children to venture into a zoom screen and casually touch or hug a parent. When a colleague's 5-year-old child did this recently, Dr. Bright reflexively on her own.

At the start of the pandemic, she found herself in a nearby park taking her daily walks with high five-fold, low-hanging branches, she said. She even has a favorite tree in her neighborhood park because it was often the only living thing she saw every day.

"It's the same body sensation I would have if I pounded a person," she said.

Dr. Neel Burton, psychiatrist and author of the books Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking and Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of Emotions, believes that touch is the most neglected of our senses.

In 2017, Dr. Burton, who lives in Oxford, England, wrote an article in Psychology Today about where this neglect comes from and what cultural aversion to touch is sometimes. This aversion can also dictate, he said, When and how strong a person's thirst for touch can occur: Age, genetics, coping mechanisms and the frequency of the touch prepandemic are the other determining factors.

"Some people may feel it within a week, others may not feel it at all," said Dr. Burton. "Undoubtedly, the thought that, hypothetically, one cannot access touch – for example, by seeing a friend or booking a massage – makes the desire worse than it otherwise would be."

A 2013 study found that touch is the most important nonverbal behavior in the nursing profession when treating older patients: "In old age, tactile hunger is stronger than ever because it is the only sensual experience that remains."

Trevor Roberts, a psychotherapist in Bournemouth, England, is concerned that people are getting used to being alone, isolated and untouched. "Not touching becomes normal, not visiting family or just talking to them on Skype," he said. "There is no substitute for human touch."

Dr. Field at the Touch Research Institute described a treatment as "moving the skin". According to Dr. Field not only caresses the action, but moves your skin vigorously enough to indent and hit the pressure receptors.

Some other ways to get your skin moving? Scalp massages, stomach crunching, brushing the entire body in the bathroom, wearing compression clothing or just rolling on the floor can trigger the pressure receptors. Similarly, placing a 10-pound bag of rice, flour, or an equally soft, weighted material on your chest has the same effect as placing a weighted blanket, according to Dr. Field. She also believes that yoga is just as effective as massage.

Mr Roberts suggested looking for different textures. Stroking and focusing on the feeling of silky, furry, smooth, and even rough surfaces, he said, can awaken the kinesthetic part of our minds.

"Some isolated people were isolated even before this even started," said Dr. Burton. "I like the idea of ​​a bubble that one household could use to bring in an isolated person from another household."

A few months ago, Ms. Carter invited a platonic friend who also lives alone to be part of her "Covid capsule".

"That first hug was both wonderful and strange, as if it should be more meaningful than it was," she said. "I was so unused to being unaffected by this point that I felt I wasn't entirely sure if this was okay at the gut level." Ms. Carter said her friend was "a good hug and a good friend, so it was good, but it took a few repetitions to relax in."

While living apart, they practice similar precautions and see each other several times a week. "We can get together, unmasked, within six feet," said Ms. Carter. "Basically, we're pretending we're part of the same household."

It took her months to get used to such an idea and get a friend on board. However, a few weeks ago they added two kittens – Merry and Pippin – to the pod.

"Both steps are aimed at the colder months when I think I'll be even more hungry," said Ms. Carter. She hopes to expand her capsule to 10 people for the winter.

Ms. Cohan in Portland was still more cautious than most people, not as nervous for herself when it came to the virus, but wanted to do what she can to avoid spreading it to others.

"I hugged exactly one person," she said, and it was a friend who was visiting from out of town and both of them were masked. “I don't go into houses or invite people into mine. I saw my family outdoors once. "

Dr. Bright, on the other hand, flew to her parents and hugged them, but not without great fear of infecting them. Ms. Hanley also opened up her household to include her sister. After being unable to see a deceased aunt or visit a friend in the hospital who had a stroke, she said the decision to no longer be alone was not a difficult one.

"The effects on my mental health after months of inactivity became downright scary," said Ms. Hanley. "The only real solution was to find ways to get more human contact."

Ms. Hanley went to a reduced capacity gym, where precautions such as temperature measurement and frequent disinfection were taken. Members tend to give each other socially distant high fives. She has also taken in five friends at their home at different times but is not blind to the risk. Ms. Carter called it her "Risk from Touch Credits".

"I met a new manager and he shook my hand," said Ms. Carter. "What a rotten reason to spend credits on risky touches, you know? I'd rather take the hand of a friend or someone who meant something to me."


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