Why we crave human touch, and how to manage without it


From leaning into a friend as you howl with laughter to shaking hands with a new acquaintance, there’s a gaping absence in our lives during these strange days of the coronavirus outbreak: human touch. And now, it's suggested people may not be able to hug any friends or family they don’t live with until a coronavirus vaccine is developed.

It may sound trivial, but the lack (or even prohibition) of physical contact with other people can have a real impact on mental well-being, particularly if you live alone, counseling psychologist Chloe Paidoussis-Mitchell told HuffPost UK.

“For some, sadly this will be a trigger for depression, anxiety and feelings of upset, sadness, being deprived, being alone and being lonely,” she said.

Psychotherapist Lucy Beresford added that we crave touch because it plays a fundamental role in our very existence.

“Touch is part of our life from the very beginning, at birth, and conveys love and care without words,” she said.

“Physiologically, some studies have shown that skin-on-skin contact releases oxytocin ― dubbed the ‘happy hormone’ ― which helps mothers bond with baby, or lovers bond as a couple. Psychologically, the cuddling, stroking, massaging and nurturing that happens to us as a baby conveys a sense of being looked after and loved,” she continued. “We carry that imprint with us as adults, so that welcome touch from someone makes us feel adored, loved or trusted.”

Other studies have suggested that hugs or massages can reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, while triggering the release of serotonin, the hormone that regulates happiness.

If you’re someone who’s particularly tactile, this disruption to your usual hormone patterns could compound feelings of distress or anxiety around the COVID-19 outbreak, Beresford said.

“Without realizing it, we might even start to feel helpless. We can even feel bereft, as though we have lost our loved ones in some way,” she added.

Because of this, it’s important to compensate in novel ways to maintain a sense of connection. Beresford recommended trying a “virtual hug” if you’re having video calls with friends or family.

When you next have a video call with friends or family, make time to hug yourself to them, and they back to you.

“Virtual hugs may sound weird, but are actually good for you precisely because they are so hilarious – and laughter is the perfect stress-release,” she said. “When you next have a video call with friends or family, make time to hug yourself to them, and they back to you.”

Paidoussis-Mitchel recommended mindful meditation or yoga to release the stress hormone, plus spending time outside where possible, gardening, watching birds or listening to something calming.

“Any time in nature helps to sooth us and connect us to something bigger than ourselves. This reduces symptoms of depression, anxiety and isolation,” she said.

Now is a good time to practice your favorite self-care techniques, Paidoussis-Mitchel added, whether that’s journalling, listening to podcasts or repeating a positive manta. You could even take inspiration from others, such as all the people we’ve interviewed in our self-care series, What Works For Me.

Beresford said physical self-soothing can also make a big difference.

“After a bath or shower, take time to massage in some moisturizer or body lotion (doesn’t have to be expensive) into your own skin, to adore your own body,” she said. “Mindful breathing is also a brilliant way to stay in your body, which is what touch helps us do.”

This post originally appeared in HuffPost UK.

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