All species need physical contact and likely none more so than humans. How else to explain the greetings we have grown accustomed to, the handshakes, the hugs, the cheek to cheek air kisses that are so common in Western cultures. Even in eastern societies where there is less overt physical contact we find more and more that handshaking exists and back pats are common. And sports players seem to be universal with their chest bumps, the fist and elbow bumps and the back and tush pats.
We all crave the need for physical contact especially a warm greeting and embrace with those we care about. Children love the head rub that goes along with a job well done compliment and babies thrive when they are cradled by their mothers. All children bond better and are more emotionally secure when they are touched by their caregivers. And throughout life all benefit from physical proximity and touch. If we do not get enough physical contact we feel deprived.
Skin hunger or touch deprivation is a subject studied by psychologists and the findings reported are very relevant to these physically isolating Novel Corona virus times. If we do not have that contact we may develop skin hunger or deprivation, an actual condition that impacts us in a variety of very significant ways.
It turns out that we need between eight and 12 hugs, cuddles, squeezes or even just a healthy brush up against another person we care about every day to help maintain a variety of systems in our bodies that promote both physical and mental health. At the most basic level physical closeness particularly to people we know and love makes us happier. It gives us a sense of contentment and calm that is likely triggered by neurotransmitters the brain chemicals that mediate how we feel and act. Among those chemicals are cortisol, known as the stress hormone. When we are in a state of tension cortisol is excreted by the adrenal glands. When we are calm, as when we do get the touch and skin contact we need, cortisol levels are diminished. Less cortisol circulates in our brain when we are relaxed and feeling loved and as a result anxiety levels go down. On the other hand, oxytocin, the hormone that is often called the affiliative or love hormone is released and circulates in our brain when we feel bonded and loved. It gives us that sense of warmth that comes when we are connected to others.
It seems that if we lack physical contact we get lonely and tense and may be depressed, stressed and even have difficulty sleeping. Given what we know about skin hunger and how important it maybe we must find a way to compensate for the physical distancing we are now forced to do.
It is a true benefit that we are living in the age of social media which is a very realistic way to maintain contact with loved ones even if it is only a virtual form of contact. We can still speak with and see those with whom we communicate in real time. True we are not physically touching, bumping into or hugging but we are capable of virtually hugging those we are isolated from. I very much miss giving my children and grandchildren the hugs that we all love. Just writing this makes me yearn for it more. But we are in regular contact online and we see each other in person and we give our virtual hugs and kisses and that helps. True it is a vicarious form of contact but it still is a very real connection. Among some of the most rigid of rabbis a special decree was issued that it is okay to connect with others via digital media when conducting a Passover Seder. Under normal circumstances the use of any electronic equipment on the holiday would be unacceptable. These rabbis note the importance of contact for those who are in need of a means to overcome the sense of isolation that comes with restricted physical contact. They recognize that real time digital connection is a good substitute.
On a day to day basis we can take a lesson from these rabbis. We can and should use all the means available to us to overcome the skin hunger that may creep into our lives during times of social isolation. When we take walks we should keep physical distance but we should communicate with those we see in the street. When we call our relatives and friends we should not just speak but also talk about how we miss the actual hugs and kisses but are sending those touches across the digital airwaves. The phrase “we are in this together and we will get through this together” has become a rally theme now. Let’s use that to bond, nurture and allow each one of us to feel that contact that, at least for now, is limited to a screen. Some forms of physical contact may change going forward but I believe that the touch hunger need will always be there, and we will get the actual contact back soon!