For Ilan Cooley, March 18, 2020, is a significant date. That was the day she last received a hug.
Being without any physical human contact for the past five weeks has been tough, says Ms. Cooley, a writer and self-described hugger (“I hug everybody”) who lives alone in Edmonton with her dog, Grace Kelly, and her apathetic cat, Newton. Some days, she feels the lack so acutely it’s a physical sensation.
“It feels like the energy’s just drained out of you, and you just don’t feel normal,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its physical-distancing requirements have denied Ms. Cooley and many others of what some researchers regard as a basic human need: to touch one another. In spite of their efforts to stay emotionally connected during this crisis through phone calls and various virtual platforms, many still crave kisses, hugs, hand-holding and caresses.
Individuals with relatives in nursing homes, which have been devastated by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, have yearned to hold their loved ones close. And according to a recent Angus Reid Institute survey, hugging friends and family members is the number one thing Canadians look forward to doing when the current outbreak runs its course.
In the wake of the mass shooting in Nova Scotia, some mourners have also lamented the inability to embrace each other in their grief.
“One of the most overlooked of our senses is touch, and yet it is absolutely essential for life,” says Jean Clinton, a clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University in Hamilton. As a social species, she says, “we’re wired to connect and that connecting includes physical touch.”
Touch not only conveys how much we care for one another, it also calms us, reduces our stress and is important for our immune function, explains Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami.
Dr. Field’s pioneering research has shown preterm babies who receive touch through massage therapy gain more weight than those who do not. She explains movement of the skin – that is, stretching it or making an indent in it – stimulates pressure receptors, which send a message to the brain and vagus, a large cranial nerve. The result, she says, is a slowing of the nervous system: The heart rate slows down, blood pressure lowers, brain waves change and stress hormones, chiefly cortisol, decline.
Cortisol is known to inhibit the activity of immune cells called natural killer cells. So reducing cortisol levels “saves” these cells, which fight against viral and bacterial infections and cancer cells, Dr. Field says.
It’s not lost on her that many individuals can’t have physical contact at a time when they could benefit from it most. “Ironic, right? The very thing that could help us out,” she says.
For those who aren’t able to receive a loved one’s touch, Dr. Field says activities that move the skin, such as stretching, physical exercise and brushing oneself in the shower, can similarly stimulate the pressure receptors under the skin.
But even those weathering the lockdown with others may be experiencing a greater appetite for physical contact than usual. Dr. Clinton at McMaster says parents have been reporting their children seem more clingy than ever, owing perhaps to their sense of ambient anxiety around them or their own internal anxiety. For children, soothing and co-regulating their feelings through a parent’s touch is vital, she says.
“Pick up those kids. Give them lots of hugs,” she says.
Among the many functions of touch, some forms of touch provide us with the sensations we need to learn about our internal state, says Aikaterini Fotopoulou, professor of psychodynamic neuroscience at University College London.
When we touch something soft or we caress a loved one, for example, certain pathways are activated in the periphery of the body and the brain, Dr. Fotopoulou says, noting these pathways have a distinct role: “They’re telling you not what the world is like, but they’re telling you, ‘Are you doing well or badly? Are you feeling good?’ ”
Dr. Fotopoulou is conducting a study on the impact of touch deprivation on people during the current COVID-19 crisis, and whether it’s possible for them to get some – albeit, she says, perhaps poor – substitution for feeling touch by seeing short videos of others hugging, caressing or holding hands in various contexts. She suggests it may be possible to receive some of the effects of touch vicariously, similar to how one might feel empathy for a friend who is suffering.
“Even though you’re not feeling it on your own skin, the brain, in order to process this visual input, is activating some of the same brain areas as would activate if you were feeling it,” she says.
Back in Edmonton, Ms. Cooley says she is savouring the memory of that last hug she received. It came from her young godson after a birthday dinner for her best friend. On Easter, her godson spoke with her via FaceTime, concerned that she was feeling sad.
“You’re the last person I hugged, and it was one heck of a good hug," Ms. Cooley recalls telling him. "I will tell you that hug has lasted me, so I’m doing just fine.”
She’s now counting the days until she can have another.
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