Why We Crave Human Touch – And How To Survive Without It During Coronavirus

The simple act of nudging arms with a fellow human being can have a big impact on wellbeing, say therapists.

From leaning into a friend as you howl with laughter to shaking hands with a new acquaintance, there’s a gaping absence in our lives during these strange days of the coronavirus outbreak: human touch.

It may sound trivial, but the lack (or even prohibition) of physical contact with other people during this period of social distancing can have a real impact on mental wellbeing, particularly if you live alone, says counselling psychologist Dr Chloe Paidoussis-Mitchell.

“Now that human touch is restricted, many people will be triggered and start to feel psychologically isolated, emotionally unheld and mentally isolated, and socially excluded,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“For some, sadly this will be a trigger for depression, anxiety and feelings of upset, sadness, being deprived, being alone and being lonely.”

Psychotherapist Lucy Beresford explains that we crave touch because it plays a fundamental role in our very existence. “Touch is part of our life from the very beginning, at birth, and conveys love and care without words,” she says.

“Physiologically, some studies have shown that skin-on-skin contact releases oxytocin – dubbed the ‘happy hormone’ – which helps mothers bond with baby, or lovers bond as a couple. Psychologically, the cuddling, stroking, massaging and nurturing that happens to us as a baby conveys a sense of being looked after and loved,” she adds.

“We carry that imprint with us as adults, so that welcome touch from someone makes us feel adored, loved or trusted.”

Other studies have suggested that hugs or massages can reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, while triggering the release of serotonin, the hormone that regulates happiness.

If you’re someone who’s particularly tactile, this disruption to your usual hormone patterns could compound feelings of distress or anxiety around the Covid-19 outbreak, Beresford tells HuffPost UK.

“Without realising it, we might even start to feel helpless. We can even feel bereft, as though we have lost our loved ones in some way,” she adds.

Because of this, it’s important to compensate in novel ways to maintain a sense of connection. Beresford recommends trying a “virtual hug” if you’re having video calls with friends or family.

“When you next have a video call with friends or family, make time to hug yourself to them, and they back to you.”

“Virtual hugs may sound weird, but are actually good for you precisely because they are so hilarious – and laughter is the perfect stress-release,” she says. “When you next have a video call with friends or family, make time to hug yourself to them, and they back to you.”

Paidoussis-Mitchel recommends mindful meditation or yoga to release the stress hormone, plus spending time outside where possible, gardening, watching birds or listening to birdsong. “Any time in nature helps to sooth us and connect us to something bigger than ourselves. This reduces symptoms of depression, anxiety and isolation,” she says.

Now is a good time to practise your favourite self-care techniques, Paidoussis-Mitchel adds, whether that’s journaling, listening to podcasts, or repeating a positive manta. You could even take inspiration from others, such as all the people we’ve interviewed in our self-care series, What Works For Me.

Beresford says physical self-soothing can also make a big difference. “After a bath or shower, take time to massage in some moisturiser or body lotion (doesn’t have to be expensive) into your own skin, to adore your own body,” she says. “Mindful breathing is also a brilliant way to stay in your body, which is what touch helps us do.”