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A pillar of public health practices during the pandemic has been social distancing, where people are maintaining a physical distance from others who are outside their households to prevent viral spread. While whittling down our social circles has been vital for health and safety, according to Yahoo Life mental-health contributor Dr. Jen Hartstein, the loss of physical touch with others may be having a significant impact on our mental health.
“Touch plays a very important role in our lives. It helps us feel less isolated and it helps us feel more connected to the people around us,” Hartstein tells Yahoo Life. “When we are deprived of physical contact for extended periods of time — as many of us have been during [the] pandemic —we might be what's called ‘touch starved.’ When this happens, we might notice an increase in depression, anxiety, isolation, withdrawal, increased stress levels for ourselves.”
Hartstein explains that the loss of physical touch is so impactful, in part because our brains naturally function with positive chemical reactions to physical touch with others.
“The first [chemical] that we talk about a lot is that [touch] stimulates something called oxytocin, ‘the cuddle hormone,’” Hartstein explains. “It’s what brings us connected to one another. All of us have it, and touch amplifies it.” Oxytocin is released into the blood when certain cells are excited by physical touch like hugging or cuddling, and studies show that it can have a positive effect on social behaviors.
“Touch also can stimulate the production of serotonin, which helps us manage our depression,” Hartstein says. Serotonin is often referred to as the ‘happiness hormone’, due to its ability to stabilize our mood and increase feelings of well-being. It’s also known to have physical benefits as well, promoting healthy function of things like appetite and metabolism.
“Lastly [touch] stimulates the production of dopamine, which is like our ‘feel-good hormones,’” Hartstein explains. Dopamine is thought to have a strong connection to how we feel pleasure, and it even aids in our abilities to think and focus.
“We feel connected, we feel engaged with others, and lastly, it can help with physical disease. It can actually help us be healthier people overall,” she says.
Hartstein points out that evidence of touch as something natural and comforting to us can be seen in many of the “replacement greetings” that we’ve become accustomed to over the last few months. “All of them involve touch. An elbow bump, a foot bump, anything like that. We're still trying to find ways to connect physically that is meaningful to all of us,” she says.
Hartstein explains that the impact of touch starvation could be amplified at this time due to the fact that stress, anxiety and fear are already at a heightened state. “The world around us is stressed and anxious, and now take away something that is very self-soothing, like touch, and it amplifies the negative emotions we might be experiencing.”
While we’re adjusting to a world without handshakes and hugs, Hartstein says it’s important to find ways you can increase touch in your life.
Increasing touch when you live alone
Even if you live alone and are feeling especially isolated, you can still bring a focus to touch in your life.
“Maybe it's with a pet, maybe it's doing your own self-soothing and self-touch, but find some way to connect with your body to help you feel grounded in a time when we're all swirling in a sea of intense emotion,” Hartstein says.
Touch within the household
“Many of us are living with people, so touch is something we're engaged in,” Hartstein says. “We don't always think about how even the slightest bit of touch can be very soothing and supportive.”
Hartstein says that even something as small as touching a family member on the shoulder when walking by can induce a feeling of connection and engagement that we might be missing. An added focus on touch within our households can be extremely helpful in easing feelings of anxiety at this time.
What about kids?
“This is a time of worry and anxiety for all of us. Now imagine you're a little kid entering the world, trying to figure out how to engage appropriately when you’re told not to touch the people you love,” Hartstein says. “So you’re not supposed to hug your friend, you're not supposed to hug grandma. All things we’ve encouraged you to do, we’re now telling you not to do.”
Although this time can be increasingly difficult for children in crucial moments of development, Hartstein says that the important thing is that kids are still receiving some level of touch at home.
“The real worry is when there is absolutely no physical contact, and most children are getting that in their homes from their parents or from siblings,” she says. “We hope that this doesn't impact their attachment or their emotional development, so we want to still teach healthy, appropriate touch to kids because they do need it, and we don't want them to be afraid of it in the future.”
For moments when we may not be able to physically touch our friends, Hartstein advises that we return to some of the ways we promoted togetherness early on in the pandemic such as teleconferencing and going on socially distanced walks.
“Togetherness is really important, and although we might not be able to touch each other, being connected in whatever way possible can counteract some of the negative side effects of lack of touch,” she says.
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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