Much has happened in the past month to give us hope that this new year, 2021, will be better than the last. (It’s not a very high bar.) But a thing that has stayed constant—indeed, has gotten worse—is this pandemic. This morning saw reporting that the world has passed 100 million known cases; in the US, we recently reached the grim number of 400,000 deaths.
A less-discussed casualty of the pandemic, however, is the the way that isolation from one another has been affecting many of us, particularly those that live alone. The Guardian recently put out an article exploring how the lack of touch affects our mental health, with lots of little juicy science bits about the ways our nervous systems respond to touch. I’ve discussed some of the touch science in the past, but it has become newly relevant in a time when even I, a therapist who uses touch in sessions, can’t provide physical touch to people who were missing it even before this began.
In their talks with scientists, The Guardian spelled out several things about touch and the human condition that run deeper than most of us realize. “The human body has built all its models based on touch received from caregivers,” says Dr. Katerina Fotopoulou, a professor of psychodynamic neuroscience. When we go without touch for a while as adults, we may not even realize what we’re missing, according to another neuroscientist, Prof. Francis McGlone, a leader in the field of affective touch. “But when we talk about the problem of loneliness,” he adds, “we often ignore the obvious: what lonely people aren’t getting is touch.”
Fotopoulou remarks that “a lack of touch is associated with greater anxiety,” and “having more touch from others helps us cope better” in times of stress, bringing down our cortisol levels. “Lots of studies support the theory that touch gives the brain a signal that it can delegate its resources for coping because someone else is there to bear the brunt. This relaxes the body, going some way to restoring the stress budget,” she adds.
I especially loved the comments from Prof. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist, for the way they brought in the metaphorical language we so often use when we talk about the body. Talking about how primates, including humans, tend to develop small social groups of around five people we consider close friends or family, he says that “these intense coalitions act as a buffer; they keep the world off your back.”
A lot of us have been going for some time now without the comfort and protection of people who can keep the world off their backs. Meanwhile, the strongest concentration of C tactile afferents, or CTs—those nerve fibers that exist solely to register gentle, stroking touch—is in the skin of the back, largely in places that we can’t easily reach for ourselves. It’s little wonder so many of us are suffering.
There are alternatives, luckily, although nothing quite takes the place of the touch of another human. The whole Guardian article is very worth reading, and includes some closing paragraphs about how we can self-soothe.
And while I’ve not been able to see clients in person for going on a year now, I have also been working on ways to help my clients self-soothe, tap into their bodies’ wisdom, and regulate their nervous systems without being able to touch them directly. Some of that involves “virtual touch,” using meditative techniques and imagination to bring a sense of being touched to clients. Some of it is simply reminding clients that they have a body, and that it might just have messages for them.
If you’re struggling during this time, feel free to reach out.