Of all COVID-19 measures, touch deprivation could be a problem
With the onset of COVID-19 and subsequent mitigating measures, many have forgotten the last time they shook hands or hugged someone in a casual setting. Our subconscious is not so tolerant of touch deprivations and we all clamour for the time when normality returns and social contact is de rigour.
Few will disagree with the notion that touch deprivation during lockdown is an experience that has its long term harmful effect. Touch deprivation has been examined to evaluate its relationship to health problems, negative mood states, sleep disturbances and stress symptoms. So why criticise the strict social distancing ordered by health authorities when such measures may prevent the spread of COVID-19 and its airborne viruses? Staying away from friends and strangers at least two metres apart has been practised by the entire population during the past 14 months. Wearing face masks is also mandated even as the spread of new variants (UK, Brazil and South African) goes unabated in certain countries typically India.
The pandemic presents a unique challenge to societies all over the globe. As stated earlier, citizens are required to engage in ‘physical distancing’, initially referred to as ‘social distancing’ and wash their hands with alcohol-based sanitiser each time they enter new premises.
Although in certain parts of Europe the infections are under control, other countries such as Germany are struggling to cope with the pandemic. Reality shows us how the “new normal” of social distancing has erased customary gestures, such as shaking hands and social hugging.
Anthony Fauci – COVID-19 expert and director of the USA National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases admitted that he doesn’t believe people should reintroduce the handshake. He argues that “not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease, but it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically”.
Is this the way to go when we know how human beings as social animals seek the benign effects of touch? It can relieve anxiety. 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 hormones during stressful times. Studies show how extreme touch deprivation may lead to delays in mental child development and in more acute cases to increased aggression in both primates and humans. The negative impacts extend into the body’s hormone production; to the technically minded this works out that touch deprivation increases stress, which triggers the production of cortisol, suppressing digestion and immunity.
Over the centuries, history shows us that there were times when due to cultural and religious norms, people were ashamed to show public affection to others by seeking out touch and intimacy. Moreover, intimate touch is reported as the type of touch most craved during the pandemic, thus being more prominent as the days of practising social distancing increase.
However, studies show that the degree to which individuals crave touch during this period depends on individual differences in attachment style. For example, it is obvious that the more anxiously attached, the more touch is craved. Many argue that social touch serves as a form of bonding and reinforcing alliances. For example, in non-human mammals such as primates, grooming is typically practised as a form of benign maternal behaviour.
In humans, scientists tell us that touch is essential for growth and development in infancy and for wellbeing and bonding later on in adulthood. Touch actively reduces infant stress by increasing positive affect and studies show how this, in turn, calms infants when in pain (cutting new teeth) and discomfort. Touch also has a lifelong effect on human bonding.
For instance, a recent study suggests that in romantic couples, self-reports of mutual grooming are positively correlated with relationship quality and previous experiences of familial affection.
In particular, in humans, social touch has been suggested as a stress buffer, playing a critical regulatory role in the body’s responses. But the question arises – if the pandemic forbids touching then what can be the best alternative to retain affection and well-being.
Experts seek out a solution that people create social bubbles that allow those who live separately but are following similar precautions to commingle yet by so doing prevent the coronavirus’s spread when they are together. One can create a bubble, say which includes a stranger who lives separately but is immunised and tests negative.
At this juncture, let us examine why is the human need for touch so vital to maintain our well-being. A touch by our fingers involves the outermost layer of our skin, called the epidermis. This is a very sensitive membrane. Scientists tell us it is made up of billions of keratinocyte cells. The cells release a chemical called ATP, which activates receptors on the sensory nerve to convey the sensation of touch to the brain.
The beauty of this chemistry is that every time we hug or feel a friendly touch on our skin, our brains release a “cuddle hormone” substance involved in increasing positive, feel-good sensations of trust, emotional bonding and social connection.
The miracle of touch decreases fears and anxiety responses in the brain. It comes as a no brainer that our nascent desire for physical contact starts at birth. Even as adults, touch helps regulate our digestion and sleep, and even boosts our immune systems.
The skin is the largest sensory organ of the body and the first point of contact with the outside world. Whether it is being pinched or caressed, the skin’s sense of touch informs organisms about their surroundings and allows them to react appropriately.
Experiments on mice whose cells can be ‘switched off’ by a certain light, thus artificially deactivating these cells makes the animals less able to respond to tactile stimuli.
Further experiments show that when pressure is applied onto the human skin, the surface skin cells release a chemical messenger, which then binds specifically to the nerve cells. This means the cells at the surface of the skin detect tactile signals from the environment and then communicate this information to the nerve cells, where it is transmitted to the brain.
In conclusion, as human beings, we all reserve the right to be adequately vaccinated and achieve herd immunity and as a result, be released from the current pandemic restrictions particularly that of touch deprivation. Michelangelo’s famous painting in the Sistine Chapel has immortalised the precious features of touch.