Human touch is something we’re wired for from birth. Numerous pediatric researchers including the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics have found skin-to-skin contact can provide measurable scientific benefits to both babies and parents. From that point on touch becomes essential to our well-being.
It also became one of the first things epidemiologists warned against to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The New York Times surveyed more than 500 epidemiologists and infectious disease experts last June and 42% of them said it would be a year or more before they were comfortable either hugging or shaking hands with a friend.
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But going without touch can also have negative health impacts according to Tiffany Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. Field has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology and her research links the absence of touch to anxiety, depression and lowered immunity.
A survey conducted during the first COVID-19 shutdowns found 68% of participants felt like they were touch deprived, and within a month the symptoms they were experiencing increased by 50%.
Fewer than 25% of total participants were living alone, which puzzled Field and her research team. “That seemed a little strange to us,” she said. “And then when we looked at touching a partner, we found only 33% said they were touching a partner a lot, and only 21% said they were touching children a lot.”
What were people doing instead as they were confined in their homes? Field and her team looked to previous data from an airport study from before the pandemic.
“We were surprised to see that only 4% of the time, were people touching each other. Sixty-eight percent of the time, they were on their cell phones,” she said. This led Field and her team to the conclusion that COVID-19 is exacerbating touch deprivation already observed in previous research.
Field linked extreme touch deprivation to developmental delays in children, and more mild cases to increased aggression in both primates and humans. The negative impacts extend into the body’s hormone production; touch deprivation increases stress, which triggers the production of cortisol, suppressing digestion and immunity.
Yet culturally, we’ve shamed people for seeking out touch and intimacy.
“You have this pandemic where there’s a lot of judgement around who you are with and how many people are with. So the effort is to keep us all safe, but people have needs,” said Sari Cooper, a certified sex therapist and founder of the Center for Love and Sex. “There’s a large part of the population who are suffering from loneliness and depression, and long-term doing without that kind of social engagement and intimacy engagement is directly impacting mental health.”
Dr. Field described a few ways to fill the absence of touch:
- Exercise, this also moves the skin the same way touch does.
- Give yourself a scalp massage or use a body brush.
- Try yoga or meditation to calm your nerves.
- Put a weighted blanket or a bag of rice over your body. The bag of rice applies pressure to the skin causing a chemical response in the brain that can reduce stress.
If you are ready to seek out intimacy from a partner, experts have issued public health guidance on how to reduce risk of spreading COVID-19.
Dr. Jack Turban co-authored a paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine urging doctors to discuss a new kind safe sex during the pandemic.
“If you tell people don’t have any sex most people aren’t going to follow those recommendations. Usually you just make them feel ashamed of their sexual urges and they do things without telling you,” Turban said. He adds clearly explaining the spectrum of sexual risk allows people to make informed decisions rather than secretive ones out of shame. “The interesting thing is that when people become more anxious and depressed, many people use casual sex to deal with those emotions, so when you’re instilling that shame, you’re paradoxically often driving people into riskier behavior, so then they’re more likely to spread the virus.”
Cooper says in her sex therapy work she encourages clients to make decisions dealing with COVID-19 loneliness and sex by practicing what she calls Sex Esteem.
- Be more compassionate and less critical of your own and others’ sexual needs.
- Realistically consider risk to yourself and others with behavior choices
- Feel confidence in expressing needs and asking questions about both sexually transmitted infections and COVID-19 risks.