Touch and Wellbeing

Don Wyeth

Touch and Wellbeing

3 mins
September 15, 2020

For the first time since the pandemic started, I took a trip to deliver some boxes to my son Nick who is planning on moving. My two grandchildren, Oliver, three and Talitha, two, were really excited to see Grampy. The first thing that Oliver said was that he wanted a hug and kiss. Nick and I did the best we could to explain why we couldn't do that. But you could see the hurt and confusion in his face. Driving home, I reflected on the fact that touching, which all human beings need, is being denied us by the COVID virus.

Social distancing and self-isolation have become more or less the norm for preventing the spread of the coronavirus. But, according to behavioral scientists, the absence of such contact as handshakes, pats on the back, hugs, and kisses, can have a profound effect on human awareness and behavior. Especially for those who are under quarantine, “… loneliness and social isolation are [becoming] growing health concerns.” time.com.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley states that “…Touch is the fundamental language of connection.” The sense of touch is the first sense to become active when we are born, communicating all kinds of supportive messages between mother and child. But these messages are not only of an emotional nature but also include support on the physical level. “Big parts of our brains are devoted to making sense of touch and our skin has billions of cells that process information about it.” Friendly touching such as hugging and holding hands has a profound effect on a person's stress levels. Consequently, your immune system, digestion, and sleep are also positively impacted. “It also activates parts of your brain that help you empathize.

Asim Shah, M.D., professor and executive vice chair of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine states, “Human beings are wired to touch and be touched. When a child is born, that is how they bond with their mother—through touch.” The absence of this stimulation has been identified as touch starvation. www.tmc.edu. This occurs when physical contact is minimal or completely absent. Dr. Shaw explains that touch starvation is very much like starving for food. The person has the desire to eat, but because of the circumstances they cannot. In both cases fear is generated, which leads to psychological and physiological reactions. 

Touch deprivation impacts on stress, depression, and anxiety. When this occurs, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol which is a response to stress. We know this has the fight or flight response. This physiological reaction increases heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and muscle tension. The immune system and digestive system are also negatively impacted. It is a medical fact that “…[e]very single medical disease including heart attack, diabetes, hypertension, asthma—every single physical disease—is altered if you are more anxious, more depressed or if you have more mental health issues.” If this condition continues, over time he can result in post-traumatic stress disorder. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. It is believed that this challenge can be met with positivity. Dr. Shaw states that “… Human beings are very resilient. We will learn the new level of intimacy. We will learn the new way of human connection—and we will learn to bring joy in different ways.”

This article was orginally reported by
Don Wyeth

Passionate and intelligent columnist from Madison, WI.