Here we go again with social distancing

What happens when we don’t touch?

By Betina Krogh-Knudsen

So here we go again. Winter is coming and with it, a new spike in the Corona graph. In Denmark the government just reintroduced the restrictions, and again – we are instructed to keep distance to each other. Social distancing is the key to not spreading the virus, so no handshakes for our clients, no hugs to our friends and colleagues. And no warm and long hugs between the kids and grandma when they see her at Christmas. Because Grandma is at risk – and kids are super spreaders. Of course, we must protect each other. Especially now when the Omicron is coming!

But there is a downside, because we are designed to receive touch and to respond to touch. A network of nerve fibers in our skin are dedicated to detecting and emotionally responding to the touch of another person. It affirms our relationship, our social connection and our sense of self.

In Sweden, neuroscientist Helena Wasling, Ph.D., is studying the C tactile afferents, the nerves that are present in large numbers in every inch of our body. In her TED Talk, she explains that these nerves are particularly attuned to three things; light touch, gently moving and 32 degrees Celsius, which is the temperature of the human skin. One could say these nerves are programmed to be most responsive to a gentle caress of another human being. In neurochemical way these nerves send a message to the inner parts of the brain, that deals with emotional equilibrium – communicating messages like; “this is nice, I feel safe now, I am accepted, someone is there for me, etc.” Hugs represent security and safety. Hugs are emotionally nourishing.

That’s why it’s in our deepest nature to hug someone in emotional or physical pain. The little boy who scrapes his knee. The friend who is suffering from a broken heart. How would we communicate safety to an infant if we didn’t have touch?

So what happens when we practice social distancing? Will the absence of touch and hugs increase suffering and make some people feel disconnected and frail? The answer is unfortunately: yes. And it’s worth considering how we can ease the difficulty of living without closeness. Here is some advice from an article by Mary Halton.

Take a shower or a warm bath

As the C tactile afferent are responsive to the semi hot temperature and slow movement, the feeling of warm water on the skin will generate a positive reaction. A bath will also loosen muscles and relief stress.

Cuddle a furry and warm pet

Wasling refers to a study that showed potential therapeutic benefits of a human-animal relationship when we are unable to interact socially during a pandemic. So maybe this is the time to adopt a furry pet or just ask to walk someone else’s dog.

Try to meaningfully connect

If you have friends or family who are living alone, they are particularly isolated and at risk. Even if you can’t touch, you can talk. So, take the time to make a physical visit, look each other in the eyes, affirm the relationship, and the fact that you are there for you friend. This is another way of expressing acknowledgement.

You could argue that these measures are a poor replacement of the warm hugs and gentle touch of another person, but until the world is freed from this terrible virus, this advice may just ease the suffering.

Source: TED Talk, “Fight off loneliness with touch”, Helena Berglund Wasling, TED Science, “Humans are made to be touched”; Mary Halton.

Posted in Psychologist musings and education.

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