This has been a horrifying two years. One that brought a devastating pandemic and with it, the total loss of even the most basic of contacts- shaking and holding hands, hugging others and the ability to see our faces.
Add to that being forced to socially distance and forgo human connections, most of us have become touch starved. Human touch begins in the warmth and protection of our mothers womb. After birth the closeness continues when we are nestled in her arms while feeding. That skin to skin contract keeps us calm and soothes us when we’re stressed. Oxytocin, a feel good hormone, surges through our system adding to those affects.
Hugs create the same hormonal cascade. I grew up in a family of huggers. My father was a large 6-foot-tall man, with arms long enough to encircle multiple kids. In his strong embrace I felt safe and secure. Hard to believe it’s been two long years since we had to stop the most basic of human gestures- shaking hands. Initially a way to prove you came in peace and weren’t holding a weapon. It created trust. And in America was seen as egalitarian, a way to get past forms of deferential treatment such as a bow or curtsy. Now, it’s a friendly gesture that encourages a relationship.
But hand holding is essential to expressing emotions. A way to give solace or congratulations alike. That most basic of touch connects us. I’ve felt its loss profoundly when I’m forced to elbow bump instead while socially distancing. It’s especially difficult when I can’t console a patient.
We require touch and human contact. It’s the first of the senses to develop in infants and it is essential to how we feel and interact with others. An exquisite array of receptors can distinguish between slow, fast, hard, soft, cold, or warm. Each activates a different part of the brain, making us feel soothed or hurt, calm or angry, comfortable or distressed. It can lower blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels, stimulate areas essential to memory, and cause a myriad of feel good hormones and neuropeptides to be released.
The physical and emotional benefits are wide spread and long lasting.
Touch is an integral part of our lives from birth to death. The pandemic has forced us into isolation or distancing to the point contact is frightening and shunned. That cycles into frustration, despair and loneliness.
Here are some ways to bring touch back into our lives without putting our health at risk.
- For those alone, don’t forget your pets. They need to be held and hugged as much as we do. Feeling their heart beat, rubbing their fur, holding them close makes us all feel contented and loved.
- Listening to certain sounds like soft whispering, tapping, crinkling or brushing hair can also stimulate the same cascade of events as touch- autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). Research shows the most popular is whispering, maybe because it’s not just a soft, gentle sound, but it conveys a more personal human connection. Check out Youtube for a variety of videos.
- Brush your hair. Every one of the hairs on our skin feels touch and generates a signal back to the brain. The sense of touch is wired into our skin and nervous system. That’s why we feel soothed and relaxed when someone brushes our hair. But we can do it as well and reap the same benefits. Growing up, I used to hear all women should brush their hair a hundred times to make it healthy and shine. That’s clearly excessive, but maybe they unwittingly realized it does the same for our overall health as well. Gently brushing a few strokes throughout the day can be a great way to pick yourself up.
- Give yourself a massage. Whether it’s someone else’s touch or your own, both work! Even stimulating your scalp, using body exfoliant brushes on your skin while taking a hot bath or foam body rollers will work. Read how to give your self a relaxing, calming massage for any body part.
- Use a pillow. It can feel like you’re hugging another body while it also aids in supporting your back and neck for a more restful sleep. Add a weighted blanket to stimulate the effects of a hug and release oxytocin as well.
As the restrictions are lifted, hope now abounds we’ll soon return to a more normal life. Until then we all require touch in some form everyday. The kind that says we exist, we are important, we matter. Whether from loved ones, friends, pets or ourselves, don’t go a day without it.