Navigating Touch Deprivation in the Social Distancing Era

girl sitting alone on her laptop wearing a mask

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Key Takeaways

  • As states continue to enforce social distancing guidelines, studies suggest that the longterm effects of touch deprivation pose a real threat to emotional wellbeing. 
  • Physical touch is one of the main ways our bodies produce the feel-good hormone oxytocin, but many people are experiencing deprivation. 
  • Safely implementing new strategies and behaviors may help mitigate the negative effects of decreased human to human contact.

Touch is one of the first languages we learn. As babies, our parents’ gentle and loving touch brings a sense of calm, and as adults we enjoy loving embraces and hugs from family and friends, as well as intimate touch from our significant others. At the end of the day, it's one of the most effective ways we can demonstrate our love and compassion toward another human.

The Importance of Physical Touch

It doesn’t just feel good to wrap our arms around another, give high fives, or snuggle up. Science points to an actual physiological and emotional need to do so.

“Many have heard of the well-known UCLA study that cites women need eight to 10 meaningful touches a day to promote physical and emotional health, and across the board, studies show that men, women, children, and adults can benefit from touch because it triggers oxytocin release," says Nadia Ameri, an educational psychologist based in Woodland Hills, Calif.

In fact, one of the primary ways our bodies trigger oxytocin production is specifically through physical touch. It ramps up when hugging, holding hands, sitting side-by-side with others, and during sexual intimacy. Ultimately, this peptide hormone helps us feel more bonded to others and fosters a greater sense of romantic, friendly, and familial closeness.

Without oxytocin, we start losing out on those very feelings and bonds that make us uniquely human. And, when our levels get too low, it can take a negative toll on our physical health.

Ameri says, “Studies show that low levels of oxytocin can actually contribute to high blood pressure, anxiety, and elevated stress levels. They can further contribute to depression and a lower pain tolerance."

Social Distancing and the Rise of Touch Deprivation

It’s safe to say that the majority of us have struggled in a number of ways since COVID-19 became a fact of life. In addition to the remarkably painful loss of life and worries over us or our loved ones contracting the virus, we’ve had to grapple with the abrupt lifestyle changes forced upon us. Social distancing has led to canceled celebrations and events and a steep drop off in the amount of time we spend with others.

Virtual events have quickly filled some of that empty space in our lives, but as fun as it might be to chat over Zoom it still keeps us from fulfilling the core human need for physical touch. Even as the world starts cautiously opening up, we’re still wary of embracing for fear of inadvertently spreading or contracting this novel virus.

This physical distance is important to the cause, but it has led to an increase in what’s called “touch deprivation,” — a drastic reduction or elimination of physical contact.

“We’ve seen significant levels of touch deprivation occur among children with the rise of technology, and now in these times of social distancing the effects of touch deprivation have spread globally to include people of all ages and walks of life,” says Ameri.

The impact is especially significant for adults living alone, such as single young adults and much of the elderly population because these groups rely on social interaction outside of the home to fulfill the need for physical touch.

Touch Deprivation in Children

When it comes to the potential effects of touch deprivation on children, a 2005 study conducted by Tiffany Fields at The University of Miami School found that when individuals were touch deprived as young children, it often resulted in higher rates of aggression and suicidal ideation in adolescence.

Interestingly, researchers demonstrated a reduction in depression and thoughts of suicide with massage therapy. This study may point to the potential risk factors involved in keeping children in a virtual classroom for extended periods of time, notes Ameri.

“Much of the time, these virtual classrooms are accessed while cooped up in their rooms. And instead of going outdoors during recess to play games that involve positive touch like tag, red rover, or duck-duck-goose with friends on the playground, they’ve been limited to online games.”

Fortunately, parents can step in here to fulfill some of those innate needs for physical touch. It does get a bit trickier with adults who live alone, though.

How to Cope When Physical Touch is “Off Limits”

We mentioned above that some of the negative side effects of reduced oxytocin include higher stress levels, lower pain tolerance, and even higher blood pressure. Ameri says that ongoing touch deprivation can also lead to poor self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and aggression.

How do we curb these side effects in a world of aggressive, ongoing social distancing? Here are some options:

Spend Time with Pets

Pets can provide meaningful touches and can be a good option for single people who live alone,” says Ameri. If you don’t have a pet but have been meaning to adopt, now is a great time. Some other alternatives are to foster a pet for the short term, or to engage in a safe, outdoor activity that involves animals, such as horseback riding.

Get Yourself a Quarantine Crew

If you feel comfortable interacting with others, Ameri recommends choosing a small group of three to four people to spend your time with. “This creates a safe space of people that are OK to interact with physically,” she says. These should be people who you trust are following coronavirus protocol. You don’t necessarily have to live with them, but if you’re into the idea of spending some time together in a shared space, and maybe even exchanging hugs or friendly back rubs, this could be beneficial for your mental health.

Try Visualization

Another study cites that 'pleasant mental experiences' can also be an outlet for oxytocin release. This means that you could look through an old photo album of happy memories, or just imagine some of your favorite experiences involving togetherness, and you can reap the benefits of this healing hormone.

Use a Weighted Blanket

It might sound strange and isn’t as good as the real thing, but the heft of a weighted blanket can simulate the sensation of physical touch. For help with your purchase, check out this buying guide.

Give Yourself a Massage

Again, it’s not as good as the real thing, but rubbing your neck, giving yourself a hand massage, or using an electronic massaging device can simulate physical touch and release oxytocin.

Exercise and Stretch Often

Exercise releases feel-good endorphins that can boost your mood. Take a walk around the block, go hiking, do some quick circuits in your backyard, go for a run, or engage in active stretching. If you’re wary of leaving the house, there are many online classes (both free and subscription) that allow you to workout in your home.

Be Deliberate in Your Interactions with Others

Whether it’s your significant other, your children, or your tiny quarantine crew, make sure to go out of your way to get your daily fix of physical touch. Hug just a little bit longer, make it a goal to cuddle before going to bed, and hold your child on your lap.

If you don’t have someone to be physical with, you can still be deliberate in your social interactions. Call a friend, make eye contact with the cashier at the grocery store, wave to your neighbor if you pass on a walk around the block, or give a friendly hello and wave to the delivery person. These aren’t complete substitutes for actual physical touch, but the social interaction can be a boon to your mental health.

A Word From Verywell

We’re living in unprecedented times and it’s perfectly understandable if you’re struggling. Know that you're not alone. As you and the rest of the world continues to navigate this new world, go out of your way to be extra kind to yourself and to others.

Learn More

The Lasting Impact of Neglect (America Psychological Association)

Why Physical Touch Matters for Your Wellbeing (UC Berkely)

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