Social distancing is making people crave physical touch as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage on. The distance is beginning to take a real toll on physical and mental health.
With lockdowns, school closures and stay-at-home orders, many of us have not shaken hands or hugged another person in weeks, sometimes months.
Earlier this year, a survey found that more than three in five Americans are lonely, reporting feelings of being left out and and lacking companionship.
And while social media and socially distanced get-togethers can help people feel more connected, scientists say there is no replacement for touch.
Humans are known to be social creatures. We crave togetherness – to be surrounded by friends and share our personal experiences with others. In fact, it’s been a key to our survival.
‘Because of things like Zoom and Skype, we have the ability to see somebody else as well as converse and get a lot of the same signals as we would in a face-to-face conversation,’ Dr Kory Floyd, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies the communication of affection and its effects on stress, told DailyMail.com.
‘What is missing is what we refer to as a sense of immediacy, a sense of presence you have with someone else when you can feel them in your space and touch.’
Loneliness has been associated with a number of health problems. It can affect mood disorders and trigger depression, but it has also been linked to heart disease, higher blood pressure, immunity function, and nervous system disorders.
A 2015 review study showed that both actual and perceived social isolation increased our chances of dying early by 26 percent.
In the UK and the US, approximately one in three people older than 65 live alone and, in America, half of those older than 85 live alone.
In both countries, studies show that loneliness in people older than 60 can reach as high as 46 percent. Because the ‘baby boomer’ population is larger than any other, by the year 2030, the majority of Americans will be 70 and older.
Skin-to-contact is important from the time we’re born.
It doesn’t just aid mothers and babies in bonding, but it helps calm infants so they sleep more and don’t cry as much.
Some studies have shown that being calmer and sleeping better enables their brain development and helps the Immune system develop at a normal rate.
This means that there is a trade-off for humans being social creatures. If companionship is necessary for survival, its opposite – seclusion – can be toxic.
‘The health effects of deprived of that touch in day-to-day life are primarily driven by a sense of threat or vulnerability that you experience when you lack that sort of connection,’ Floyd said.
‘The brain interprets that deprivation as a threat. Our brains are telling us that we’re not safe, so we become hyper-vigilant of that environment.’
He said this leads to increased amounts of stress, which can manifest physically including headaches, elevated blood pressure, and chest pain.
These can all raise the risk of – or worsen – diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and arthritis.
Additionally, the increase of cortisol, known as the stress hormone, can increase the amount of fat tissue your body and cause you to gain weight.
Floyd says there are a few ‘imperfect’ things you can do if you are missing physical touch but don’t yet feel safe enough to do so.
He says that petting animals, be it your own cats and dogs, a neighbor’s or from a pet shelter, can help lower levels of stress hormones.
Additionally, hugging something like a pillow with pressure can trick your brain ito thinking that you are hugging a person.
‘There has been research that shows when you embrace the pillow, the pressure and warmth against skin that even that has some stress relieving benefits,’ Floyd said.
‘It’s truly engrained in our DNA to be connected and even more so engrained in our DNA to touch. These things can tide us over so we don’t feel so touch-deprived.’