Lack of Affection During Pandemic Increased Depression and Loneliness, Study Shows

drawing of people embracing

Verywell / Nez Riaz

Key Takeaways

  • Lack of affection was a consequence of social distancing and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • People suffered from an increase in depression, loneliness, and stress as a result of a lack of affection.
  • Focusing on other areas of wellness, maintaining virtual connections, and talking with a professional can help individuals cope with missing affectionate communication.

Avoiding crowds, remaining six feet apart, and staying in isolation has been the rallying cry worldwide for the past two years. While helping to curb the spread of COVID-19, these actions have hindered face-to-face interaction. The loss of human contact on a most basic level robbed us of an essential need—the need for affection.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, that lack of affection is linked to an increase in depression, stress, and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Affection took a turn from physical touch to impersonal virtual interaction. People had to become creative with how they interacted with others and then there were also those that chose to isolate and avoid interaction,” explains Olivia Chante’ Frazier, LPC, CEO, Transform You LLC.

Now that COVID-19 restrictions are loosening worldwide, people are attempting to return to some sense of normalcy. To do that means recognizing how being apart has affected our mental health and putting measures in place to improve it. By exploring the importance of affection, we see the mental and emotional cost of being without it and learn how we can reintroduce affectionate communication.

Study Details

A team of researchers used survey responses to understand the mental health of people who were in isolation. They distributed three sets of surveys during May and June of 2020. Close to 700 adults in the United States ages 18 years old and older took part in the study.

A large majority of the respondents were under stay-at-home orders during the early stages of the pandemic when the surveys were given. Each participant responded to questions about loneliness, symptoms of depression, stress, and satisfaction with life.

They could note whether they agreed or disagreed with responses like, “I don’t get enough affection in my life” and “I felt depressed”. Overwhelmingly, people expressed that they were missing affection in their lives and were dealing with sadness and loneliness.

Olivia Chante’ Frazier, LPC

Affection took a turn from physical touch to impersonal virtual interaction.

— Olivia Chante’ Frazier, LPC

The study also uncovered a difference in the reactions of men and women to a lack of affection, noting women experienced more depressive symptoms than men.

“Women tend to be natural nurturers and can be more emotionally connected to others.  Not being able to engage in these natural tendencies contributed to an increase in depressive symptoms,” says Frazier.

The findings make a significant statement about the need for human interaction.

“These finding suggest that overt and communicated affection is essential to the mental health and well-being of all people,” states Kyra Ross, MSEd, MHC-LP, a Psychotherapist.

Researchers say the premise of the study came from understanding the Affection Exchange Theory. According to the theory, affection is an innate human need. Furthermore, affectionate communication helps people to thrive. Research shows that when people lacked affection, they struggled with physical pain and poor sleep quality.

The Importance of Affection

People communicate affection by the words they speak, as well as their actions. It impacts people physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Kyra Ross, MHC-LP

Affection can be linked to support, feelings of belonging or camaraderie, and love.

— Kyra Ross, MHC-LP

“Affection can be linked to support, feelings of belonging or camaraderie, and love. Biologically, certain types of affection can aid in release of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that allow for our body to experience the feelings of love, trust, empathy, and compassion,” Ross explains.

Human touch is a powerful way to communicate affection. Without that sensory touch, children can experience developmental delays.

Touch can convey happiness, gratitude, and love.  

But when touch is eliminated from the picture, or severely diminished as in the case of during the COVID-19 pandemic, it can create a void. Experts say it’s important to take steps to do things to help reap the benefits of affection, even if you can’t be close to others.

“I would encourage people to stay active!” says Frazier. She also recommends finding someone who can help you process any challenging feelings. “Professionals have strengthened their skills to better assist clients with the emotional impacts of the pandemic so seek out talking with a professional.  Engage in more creative ways of affection by thinking outside of the box,” she adds.

Those ways can include focusing on other areas of wellness, such as a healthy diet, exercise, and drinking water. Maintaining virtual social connections can even be beneficial.

Affection is a critical component of human interaction. Experts say study results like this help highlight the importance of each person’s total health as we navigate the impact of COVID-19.

“These findings are significant to understand the local, national, and global effects of the pandemic. This information may be able to provide a roadmap of what resources are needed to take additional steps to healing from the global mental health crisis, which we are currently facing,” Ross concludes.

What This Means For You

Face-to-face connection and interaction are vital forms of communication and have been largely decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s normal to miss those types of connections, as well as affectionate touch.

As you seek to return to a sense of normalcy following extensive periods of isolation, give yourself grace. Take care of your physical, emotional, and mental health, and makes steps to reincorporate methods of affection into your life.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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