I read an article recently in the newspaper that highlighted the emotional toll of physical distancing. The story involved an adult son, who hadn’t given a hug to his mother for nine months, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In her senior community, the maintenance crew constructed a “hugging wall” of plastic to enable loved ones to touch each other without risk of transmission. For the first time since March, mom and son were able to hug safely. After this moment, they wept as they felt the magnitude of their longing for each other’s touch.
Ten months into the pandemic, we are seeing both a light at the end of the tunnel – in the form of newly approved vaccines – as well as an unequaled surge in cases that have curtailed even the limited movement some of us enjoyed in the warmer months. This is so hard, especially as we enter the holiday season, a time when many of us would normally gather with family and friends, attend holiday parties or take our kids to light displays.
How lack of touch affects us
The prospect of spending the holidays alone, or without human contact, is more than some of us can bear. And it’s clear why: As humans, we need touch for our physical, mental and emotional health.
Touch triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps reduce stress and anxiety. In doing so it also protects our immune system by reducing the inflammation caused by stress and anxiety. Oxytocin has also been linked to lower blood pressure, a factor in healthy heart function.
The absence of touch can exacerbate depression, aggression, irritability, loneliness, and sleep problems, among other
How to cope?
If you’re noticing these symptoms, and shouldering the emotional toll of physical distancing, what can you do? Here are some suggestions to help ease the impact of being without touch.
1. Hug a Tree
A growing body of research points to the myriad of therapeutic benefits of being in nature. Many of us don’t need scientific evidence to tell us this is true – we are instinctively drawn to the outdoors.
But how many of us realize this? How many of us recognize the value in tactile engagement with nature? In his 2011 book Blinded by Science, Mathew Silverstone explores the evidence suggesting that tree hugging can bestow significant mental health benefits. As is the case when we hug each other, hugging a tree triggers the release of oxytocin.
2. Spend time in nature
Even if tree hugging isn’t your thing, spending time in nature still confers mental, emotional and physiological benefits. A report from 2018 suggests that regular exposure to green space – be it a park, along the sidewalk, in the backyard or garden – can reduce your risk of diabetes, heart disease, premature death, stress and high blood pressure.
3. Stimulate the vagus nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the human body. It’s connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, which activates the body’s relaxation response. You can stimulate the vagus nerve by stroking the sides of your neck or rubbing your feet.
4. Spend time with animals
Adoption programs and shelters have been inundated with applications for dogs, cats and other animals since the start of the pandemic. With good reason: living with animals can help reduce anxiety and depression, and help alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation. Pets are a big responsibility and bringing one into your life is a decision that should be made thoughtfully. If adopting is not an option right now, you could consider fostering, or asking friends or family if you can walk or sit their pets.
5. Give yourself a hug
Studies suggest that hugging yourself can convey some of the benefits of receiving a hug from someone else. Hugging yourself can help relieve pain, increase feelings of self-compassion, and improve your mood. Dr. Julie shared that “the butterfly hug as lauded by EMDR practitioners for its bi-lateral stimulation offers our nervous system the chance to experience incredible self soothing”.
The pandemic has caused so much disruption to our lives, including our notions of touch as a basic component of human connection. What we once did routinely and spontaneously – hug each other, shake hands, etc. – is now something we both crave and fear. As we cope with the emotional toll of continued physical distancing in the new year, let’s stay positive.
It will still be some time before we can resume interacting in a way that feels familiar. The practices listed here can help serve as scaffolding until such time as we can once again embrace each other without hesitation.
Regina Tosca, LICSW is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including from their work in animal welfare. Other blogs by Regina include “Grieving the Loss of a Pet” and “Cognitive Tips for Chronic Pain Management.”