October 28, 2020

Are you struggling with 'touch deprivation'? These strategies can help.

Daily Briefing

    The novel coronavirus has made physical contact with most others dangerous, but experts say that prolonged touch deprivation poses its own threat, Maham Hasan writes for the New York Times.

    How Covid-19 will impact behavioral health services

    Why touch is dangerous amid Covid-19

    According to CDC, the novel coronavirus can spread "very easily from person to person," primarily "through close contact from person to person, including between people who are physically near each other (within about 6 feet)." The agency warns that the virus "most commonly spreads" when people are physically close to or have direct contact with each other," and that "[p]eople who are infected but do not show symptoms can … spread the virus to others."

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    To mitigate the virus' transmission, CDC recommends that Americans stay six feet away from people who don't live in their households, and public health experts say Americans should avoid shaking hands, kissing, and giving and receiving hugs with people who don't live in their households—even if those people are family members or close friends. Health experts caution that just one infected person could start an outbreak of the new coronavirus if they have close contact with others, but they note that physical distancing can help to prevent such an instance.

    Touch deprivation can affect mental health

    But as the country's coronavirus epidemic persists and Americans continue to avoid physical contact with most others, mental health experts are concerned that Americans may begin to experience negative effects from prolonged touch deprivation, Hasan writes.

    According to experts, humans commonly yearn for physical affection, especially during stressful times. Research has shown that human touch can help calm the sympathetic nervous system, which releases stress hormones during stressful times, Hasan notes.

    On the flipside, people who are deprived of physical contact for months can begin to experience mental health conditions associated with touch deprivation, including anxiety and depression, according to Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami.

    For example, Jo Carter, a 50-year-old project manager at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who lives alone, told Hasan that she's felt crankier and more restless since America's coronavirus epidemic began. Carter noted that, because of the epidemic, she hasn't been able to get massages and pedicures, which had served as consistent sources of touch for her.

    Neel Burton, a psychiatrist and author of the books "Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking" and "Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions," said a lack physical contact may cause some people to crave touch—but how intensely a person feels that desire depends on many factors, including the person's age, coping mechanisms, genetics, and their frequency of touch before the epidemic began.

    "Some people may feel it within a week, others may never feel it at all," Burton said. "No doubt the thought that you cannot hypothetically access touch—for example, by seeing a friend, or booking a massage—makes the craving worse than it would otherwise be."

    That desire for touch may be felt more intensely by older adults, research suggests. For example, Hasan notes that a 2013 study published in Nursing Older People found that touch was the most crucial nonverbal behavior in the nursing profession when treating older patients. "In old age, the tactile hunger is more powerful than ever, for it is the only sensuous experience that remains," researchers wrote in the study.

    How to satisfy your body's desire for touch—and protect your mental well-being

    Even amid the coronavirus epidemic, experts say there are steps people can take to satisfy their desire for touch and protect their mental health.

    For instance, Field said people can try "moving [their] skin" vigorously enough to activate pressure receptors and cause indentations. People also could put a 10-pound bag of flour, rice, or an equally soft and weighted object on their chest to act as a weighted blanket, Field said, or they could do yoga, which Field believes is as effective as getting a massage.

    In addition, abdominal crunches, brushing your body in the bath, compression clothing, scalp massages, and rolling on the ground may help to satisfy a desire for touch, Hasan writes.

    Trevor Roberts—a psychotherapist in Bournemouth, England—recommends caressing different textures, including furry, silky, and smooth surfaces, to help arouse the kinetic portion of people's minds.

    However, Burton said he prefers the idea of people creating social bubbles that allow people who live separately but are following similar precautions to prevent the coronavirus's spread to be together.

    Carter has created a bubble, which includes her friend who lives alone and two kittens, Merry and Pippin. Carter said creating the bubble had a positive effect on her well-being—but it took some getting used to.

    "That first hug was both wonderful and odd, like it should be more momentous than it was," Carter said. "I was so unused to being untouched by that point that it felt like I wasn't quite sure that this was OK, at a gut level," she explained. However, Carter said her friend is "a good hugger and a good friend, so it was good, [though] it took a couple of repetitions to relax into it."

    Carter told Hasan that she's hoping to expand her bubble by this winter—when she expects she'll "be even more touch starved"—to include 10 people.

    Similarly, 41-year-old Sarah Kay Hanley, who works in banking compliance in Oregon, decided to open her home up to her sister after she was unable to see an aunt who died or to visit her friend who experienced a stroke in the hospital. Hanley also joined a reduced-capacity gym, where members undergo temperature checks and give one another social distanced high-fives.

    "The effects on my mental health after no contact for months was getting downright scary," Hanley said. "The only real solution was to find ways to get some more human contact."

    Be mindful of the risks

    But it's important that people consider the level of risk they're comfortable with and the various factors that impact their own risk levels when considering which solutions are right for them—and for people to be mindful that low or moderate risk activities are not equivalent to no risk.

    As Carolyn Cannuscio, a social epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, in April told Vox's "Future Perfect," having a small, "closed circle" still places people at risk, because someone in the bubble could contract the virus while running necessary errands or working, and then unintentionally spread the virus to others in the bubble. Bubble participants also would have to consistently stick to a strict set of social distancing rules outside of the circle, which Cannuscio said could be difficult to follow.

    "All of us as human beings are flawed," she said. "We set out with great intentions but ... it's complex for human beings to actually follow through on those kinds of promises" (Hasan, New York Times, 10/6; CDC website, 10/5; Samuel, "Future Perfect," Vox, 4/28).

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