During the first week of social distancing, Lisa Bien found herself in line at a Mount Laurel Shop Rite chatting it up with a shopper behind her.
“We were just laughing and talking and having a great time," said Bien a motivational speaker, television host, and author and self-described hugger. “And then I reached out … and we caught ourselves. We just stopped and I immediately felt sad. Because even though she was a stranger, we had connected and the next logical step was to hug her or shake her hand, or something.”
It’s been weeks since we’ve been able to touch a human being, who we don’t live with. That means no hugs from our parents. Beloved nieces and nephews no longer just plop down on our laps. The soothing touch of our favorite manicurists, pedicurists, or massage therapists are long lost. Handshakes are in danger of extinction. There have been no spontaneous high fives.
Why is the loss of touch leaving many of us feeling anxious and melancholy? Because on top of all the stress and uncertainty COVID-19 has introduced into our lives, we can no longer rely on one of our most natural ways to cope with anxiety: taking comfort in human touch.
“We are social animals, so touch is incredibly important to us," explained Melissa Hunt, a clinical psychologist and associate director in the department of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. When babies aren’t touched, Hunt explained, they stop eating and stop growing. Patients who are touched in the ICU recover faster. This is in large part, scientists believe, because a touch releases the powerful bonding hormone, oxytocin.
“Oxytocin is important to our well-being and connection to the world,” Hunt said. “It bolsters our immune system and represses the stress hormone, cortisol.” As we sludge through these days and months without touch, not only will we feel lonely, there will be biological consequences to our neuroendocrine system, the system that regulates our moods, our metabolism, and our sex drive.
No wonder we’re feeling a bit bummed.
The bad news says Philadelphia-based psychologist Marquita Williams, is that nothing replaces human touch. But there are things we can do that can stimulate the same good feelings touch does. “The goal,” Williams said. “Is to get through this safely and as sanely as we can.”
Here are some tips to help you cope.
If you’re fortunate enough to shelter in place with your family, or perhaps even a roommate, make an extra effort to simply touch them more, Hunt said. When you are walking by your son or daughter, place your hands on their shoulders. Or when in conversation, reach out and touch a sibling’s shoulders. If your roommate says something funny, give them a high five. “Every time you do that you are expanding that positive feedback loop," Hunt said.
Studies show that petting your dog or your cat releases the same calming sensations as human touch, said Stephanie Krauthamer-Ewing, a clinical and developmental psychologist at Drexel University. Dogs are particularly wonderful because they give as much love as they get, but a purring cat will do wonders for your mood. Don’t have a furry friend? Inquirer reporter Grace Dickinson reported last month that the majority of animal rescue centers are open for you to adopt or foster a pet during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether you knead tense muscles with low-tech roller or fancy Theragun, make time to rub your body down. Not only is it soothing, “it keeps muscles flexible and helps with stiffness," said Bryn Erace, who is the owner of Hand and Stone Massage and Facial Spas in Cherry Hill, the Northeast and Feasterville. It’s not only a great form of self care, “It keeps muscles flexible and helps with stiffness," said Erace who recommends using CBD oil if you have it. Aneesh Chaudhry, owner and founder of SoulPhysio Lifestyle, a California-based fitness boutique for the brain, concurs adding that massage, “activates our parasympathetic nervous system and calms down our fight or flight response [just] as if you were touched by a friend,” Chaudhry said.
You don’t have to stand on your head, Chaudhry said, but a yoga position like the eagle pose is literally a self hug designed to help you go inward. Use this touch-less time to create other rituals that ease anxiety, said Linda Copel, a professor at the Fitzpatrick College of Nursing at Villanova University and a marriage and family therapist. If intense balance is not your thing you can practice simple neck, shoulder, and back stretches. A good back stretch: Sit on the floor cross-legged and hug yourself while gently twisting your spine as far as you can go. “You will surprised how this simple stretch can do wonders for your well-being,” Erace said.
Being touched feels good to us because we are responding to the warmth of another body, Hunt said. And that toasty feeling can elicit the same biological responses as touch, Hunt said. Keep your home above 68 degrees. Feeling funky? Fix yourself a cup of hot tea and cradle the cup while sitting under a blanket. Cuddle up with a heating pad. You might also want to take a bubble bath, or if you don’t have a bathtub, take a soothing hot shower.
Young children love stuffed animals because they are soft, squishy, and comforting, Hunt said. “That tactile feeling is assuring to little ones,” Hunt said. If you gave away all of your stuffed animals in a Marie Kondo moment, curl up on your couch with a throw pillow while binge-watching television. Miss the beau you don’t live with, Williams said, sleep next to a life-size pillow. “Having something to hold will calm down your nighttime anxiety,” she said. “It’s what I do.” It may seem weird, she says, but it works.