The Morning Call (Sunday)
What All This Touch Deprivation Is Doing to Us
It’s going to be a while before we can hug freely again. What does that mean for our mental health?
BACK IN JUNE, a few hundred epidemiologists and infectious disease experts interviewed by The New York Times said it would likely be a year or more before they would feel comfortable hugging or shaking the hand of a friend. Thirty-nine percent said it would likely be three to 12 months. (Also of note: Many said they never shook hands anyway.)
Even for the non-epidemiologists among us, everyday touch has become a source of stress — and a negotiation of personal boundaries — in a way that it never was before the coronavirus pandemic.
Some have gone many months without touching; it was one of the first things we were cautioned against, even before social distancing, masks and stay-at-home orders became the new normal. And eventually, its absence can give way to a condition of touch deprivation, which can lead to health issues like anxiety and depression, according to Tiffany Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, who has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology.
Dr. Field calls touch “the mother of all senses,” and in her 2001 book, “Touch,” argues that American society was already touch deprived, long before the coronavirus.
WHAT KIND OF TOUCH ARE PEOPLE MISSING?
When asked what specific kind of touching they missed the most, the answer was identical for everyone I interviewed: hugs. Anita Bright, 51, a professor at Portland State University in Oregon, who recalled being unable to hug a student who had defended her dissertation in early March, said she especially missed the tighter, longer hugs that accompany a reunion.
Jo Carter, 50, a project manager at the University of Wisconsin,-Madison, who lives alone, said that pre-pandemic, she would get massages and pedicures to maintain a consistent feeling of contact. During the lockdown, she has found herself crankier and more restless than normal.
In addition to sleeping under a weighted blanket, Ms. Carter has begun cuddling the teddy bear she has had since grade school.
Sarah Kay Hanley, 41, who works in banking in Oregon City, Ore., had a dream recently in which she was touching her friend’s freshly shaved head, which she had seen on a video call. She got a tingly feeling, like itching, in her hands, viscerally remembering the sensation the tiny hairs had created.
“It feels warm and prickly if you rub one way, and soft the other,” said Ms. Hanley, who used to work as a hairstylist. She described touch deprivation as “a feeling of being totally disconnected from understanding how I felt physically.”
For Jenna Cohan, 32, who does advocacy work combating domestic and sexual violence in Portland, Ore., the reminders have been continual. She sees dogs walking by outside her window, and realizes constantly that she can’t be outside petting them.
Dr. Bright said it’s not rare to see the children of her colleagues and students venture into a video screen and casually touch or embrace a parent. Recently, when a colleague’s 5-year-old child did just that, Dr. Bright reflexively grabbed her own.
In the beginning of the pandemic, she found herself high-fiving low-hanging tree branches in a nearby park where she takes her daily walks, she said. She even has a favorite tree. It is often the only living thing she sees every day. “It is the same body sensation that I would have in high-fiving a human,” she said.
A woman described touch deprivation as ‘a feeling of being totally disconnected from understanding how I felt physically.’
HOW TO COPE WITH TOUCH DEPRIVATION
Dr. Neel Burton, a psychiatrist and the author of “Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking” and “Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions,” believes touch is the most neglected of our senses.
In 2017, Dr. Burton, who lives in Oxford, England, wrote an article for Psychology Today about where that neglect comes from, and our occasional cultural aversion to touch. This aversion can also dictate, he said, when and how intensely the need for touch may kick in. Age, genetics, our coping mechanisms and the frequency of touching