All of humanity craves being touched. We are taught the value of skin-on-skin contact from the moment we are born. The warm embrace of our mothers is the very first signal we get in this world; telling us without words that everything is going to be OK.
From day one of birth, touch becomes a lifelong need. Not just a want or a desire – a metaphysical need. Touch is the meaning of our existence; the relationship between mind and matter. It's not just humans that have this need – all mammals do. Dogs, cats, horses, lions, tigers, and bears; warm-blooded creatures all crave being swaddled, rubbed, licked and massaged by each other.
This give-and-take physical sensation is a fundamental of being alive. In fact, it's what tells us we are living.
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In the past month, touch is something many people have been denied. My skin hasn't touched the skin of another human for over five weeks now. Not a hug, not a kiss, not a handshake. Not an accidental graze, tap on the shoulder, nor a pat on the back. The coronavirus pandemic has discouraged any of these kinds of touch-based interactions, and for many, disallowed them altogether.
As such, many of us have been starved of touch, which is almost on par with being starved of food.
The 21st Century dependence on technology is giving us a false sense of touch; one that has been exacerbated during this pandemic. We have convinced ourselves that video calls, instant messages, likes, and digital reactions are a substitute for human touch. On the surface, such digital communication does satiate the need to connect with others.
However, when it's all we have for a prolonged period, we start to realise there's something vital missing.
Studies have shown that deprivation of touch is a serious health risk. It results in "loneliness, depression, stress, alexithymia [a marked dysfunction in emotional awareness], preoccupied and fearful-avoidant attachment styles, personality disorders, and mood and anxiety disorders", according to research in the Western Journal of Communication.
Touch is used to calm certain bodily functions like heart rate and blood pressure. At the surface of our skin, we have what are called C-tactile afferents. They respond to the stimulus of touch with the production of oxytocin (otherwise known as the "love drug"). Oxytocin is crucial for bonding, the development of serotonin, and dopamine.
Perhaps more concerningly right now – in an age of a pandemic that kills the immunocompromised – touch deprivation results in secondary immune disorders. Quite literally, not being touched makes your immune system weaker and less able to fight off infections. By conditioning society-at-large to be fearful of human touch (as we have been doing for over a month now) we will very likely end up with more people in that "vulnerable" immunity category than ever before.
As we go from alert level 4 back to levels 3 (and 2) and this virus is basically eliminated, it's going to be important to facilitate touch. We cannot end up with a society that fears affection. We must continue to shake hands in a business setting, hug and kiss our friends and family, and even offer a literal helping hand to strangers. In the beginning, this will probably mean facilitating more touch only within your "bubble", but it must extend eventually.
It's important to remember that if you are receiving sufficient touch in your own life, offering your touch to another might do little for you. But, for the person you're offering it to, it might be the single human connection they've had all day, or all week, or all month. We cannot underestimate how many people are (and will remain) starved of touch from now on.
Everybody has their own individual comfort zone when it comes to skin-on-skin contact. Some (like me) will greet all friends with a kiss on the cheek or a big, proper hug. That's something I genuinely need each and every day. Others prefer a handshake or a high-five. While some people believe they don't like being touched, this is a learned dysfunction and not a biological trait – we all have those same nerve endings.
It's essential to respect every individual's comfort level, but I fear many of us will have taken on that learned dysfunction throughout this pandemic. Let's stop this harmful practice in its tracks. We can't afford not to touch each other's skin; we need simply do it in the safest appropriate way possible.