For people who live alone, lockdown means ‘touch starvation’ as we go days without hugs, handshakes or other contact
Diana Spechler – The Guardian
‘The touch we’re missing is the soothing kind – a supportive pat on the back, a sincere hug, an empathetic stroke of the arm, a friendly hand squeeze, a lover’s kiss.’ Photograph: Photographer is my life./Getty Images
My friend Hannah tells me her therapist said: “A person should be hugged 10 times a day.”
For many of us, that’s now unsafe. It was even unlikely before. Pre-quarantine, I was one of 35.7 million Americans who lived alone. My daily hug average hovered around two. Maybe four. Sometimes zero. I’m not a mom or a girlfriend or a self-identified “hugger”. My last hug transpired in the surreal middle of March, as toilet paper lost all meaning and we learned a foreign language: N95, PPE, Wuhan, Covid, shelter in place. States of emergency were declared. I kept misreading “pandemic” as “panic”. I hugged my niece without fanfare.
Now it’s late May. I’m healthy, food-secure, sheltered. Yet I feel a squirmy discomfort, my skin rebelling against its seclusion. When I described the sensation to the neuroscientist Dr Katalin Gothard, she speculated that I could be experiencing withdrawal. “Social touch stimulates the release of opioids and oxytocin in the brain,” she said; without touch, the brain has less oxytocin and fewer endogenous opioids, whose effects are similar to opioid drugs.
Leah Schnelbach, a New York City resident who is 11 weeks into solitary quarantine, told me that her sense of “touch starvation” has become “almost like a physical presence”. She added: “It’s part of my life, it takes up its own space, and I’m trying to live with it like it’s a roommate until I’m able to throw it out.”
Of course, not all touch is welcome. Whether because of sensory issues or a history of trauma or a simple need for extra space, some people are enjoying the touch reprieve social distancing offers. Many mothers of young children, far from feeling deprived, dream of time without hands on their bodies. And this is to say nothing of domestic violence victims locked down with their abusers.
“In Chile, by cultural norm, women have to greet people with a kiss on the cheek,” Monse Sepulveda, a resident of Santiago, told me. “This is often quite uncomfortable if the man gives us a bad vibe or we have a weird history with him. But now, we don’t have to kiss anyone! I’ve talked about it with many women jokingly, but in all seriousness, it’s quite a relief.”
The touch we’re missing is the soothing kind – a supportive pat on the back, a sincere hug, an empathetic stroke of the arm, a friendly hand squeeze, a lover’s kiss. “Those who are suffering the most right now are those who were already affection-deprived,” Kory Floyd, a communication professor at the University of Arizona who studies personal relationships, told me. “But that population is also more likely to have coping skills. Most people, used to a certain amount of touch, are suddenly without it. Through an evolutionary lens, if we consider how dangerous it once was to be shunned or otherwise separated from the pack, it makes sense that touch-deprivation would register as a threat.”
I was trying to remember what it’s like to be touched because I fear I might forget
I suppose that’s why we flail around: We screen-kiss. We adopt dogs. We say “when this is over …” no matter how many times we’re disabused of the notion. An article about a woman embracing her great-grandchildren through a “hug time” contraption goes viral. Sales of teledildonics (smart vibrators) thrive. “Yesterday I held my right hand with my left,” Elisa Díaz Castelo, a poet in Mexico City, told me. “I was trying to remember what it’s like to be touched because I fear I might forget.”
Countless studies prove the necessity of social and emotional touch, both of which, by releasing oxytocin, boost the immune system and lower the heart rate. “Touch is the first emotionally meaningful sense to appear when you’re born,” said Gothard, “and the last to go before you die. The newborn understands touch much better than he understands sight or sound. The elderly lose their vision, their hearing, their balance. But they don’t lose touch.”
The dying relax if their hands are held. Among the angels of the Covid-19 era are the nurses who offer that very service when families aren’t allowed near the death beds. Such heroism has a precedent: “During the plague of Antonine, which may have killed 5-10 million people between 165 and 180 CE,” historian John Kelly, author of The Great Mortality, told me, “early Christians rushed to, not away from, the plague-stricken. They believed in hands-on healing as a noble duty that would earn them ascendance to heaven.” They martyred themselves through touch.
The rest of us turn to fantasy. Gothard notices that when she sees her friends’ kids, she instinctively hugs herself. I struggle to sleep these days without arranging a pillow against my back, clasping another to my chest. “I imagine putting my hand on someone’s arm or putting my hand over theirs or even just sitting shoulder to shoulder with a friend,” said New York City resident Blaise Allysen Kearsley.
Dr Colter Ray, assistant professor of interpersonal and health communication at San Diego State University, said: “When we’re deprived of something we need, our bodies signal us. When we can’t address those signals and meet those needs, we might fantasize. Imagining touch when we don’t have it is like imagining water when we’re thirsty.”
“There are no substitutes,” said Marian Houser, a communication studies professor at Texas State University and co-founder of Living Mental Wellness, “but we have to do what we can right now to stimulate the reward center in the brain. If we don’t feel rewarded, we don’t release serotonin. Without serotonin, we feel unhappy, even depressed.”
Houser suggested adopting a pet, though she acknowledges that cuddling with a dog won’t replace cuddling with a person. “It’s not the same,” she said, “because humans and animals lack a shared understanding of what touch means.” She recommended asking outright for compliments from loved ones, or writing a letter and sending it, or connecting through a video chat, though Gothard warns that Zoom connections won’t suffice: on Zoom, we can’t make eye contact. Looking at the camera creates for the other person the impression of eye contact, but we can’t focus on both the eyes and the camera at once.
I would love to conclude by reporting on which day, at which hour, it will be safe to cup a face between hands, to pluck a loose eyelash from someone’s cheek. But the future remains invisible. What I do see is the absence of fingers on elbows, of arms around waists, of lips on foreheads. I see constant affronts from the “leaders”, from the conspiracy theorists, from the billionaires, from the “protesters” who serve as vectors for the disease they claim to flout. I see the dead and the dying. I see the poor getting poorer, the defenselessness of the already defenseless, the prisoners, the rampant greed, the chilling predictions: eventually we’ll all get it. Perhaps what we crave is not just touch – the release of oxytocin, the stimulation of C-tactile fibers – but its embedded and unspeakable message: it’s going to be OK.
- Diana Spechler is a novelist and essayist