The technology that we surround ourselves with has enabled personal connections to be sustained during each lockdown. When we want to reach out to our friends and family from our isolation, it is mobile phones and computers that we now turn to. While these work continuously well to ensure that the majority of our society is able to communicate with each other, they are unable to replace the innate, human need we have for physical contact. As we begin to rely solely on digital devices for communication, the issues are becoming increasingly more apparent.
A Simple Touch
For our bodies, as with all social mammals, touch is remarkably important. Simple, non-sexual gestures of contact, such as hugs and handshakes, have significant psychological effects, helping us to feel comfortable, relaxed, and empathetic. Even a gentle touch from a stranger can prompt our skin to release oxytocin, a hormone associated with love and happiness. Beyond an immediate sense of comfort, touching others also helps to reinforce ourselves as part of a group and society.
Interestingly, our body’s nerve fibres seem to be arranged to encourage physical contact too. One specific set, c tactile afferents, which stimulate the emotional processor within our brian, appear in those parts of the body we cannot easily reach by ourselves. This is why hard-to-reach areas, like our backs and high shoulders, are often pleasantly receptive to the touch of others, triggering the release of dopamine and oxytocin. It seems we are biologically designed to encourage human contact.
Living Without Others
A little under 8 million people are estimated to live alone within the UK. For many of these residents, the pandemic eliminates the possibility of them being able to make contact with others except for communication across virtual platforms. Additionally, there is a significant portion of the population, typically elders, who do not even have such technological access, leaving them without the benefit of digital devices to reach out to their loved ones. Julia Lloyd says, “For 14 weeks, the only other person I’ve seen is the postman or a food delivery driver.” Such social limitations are common and have already led to numerous cases of deteriorating mental wellbeing, as well as a rising number of psychological disorders. Julia herself experienced panic attacks.
In such situations, we tend to feel a great desire for the comforting touch of another. Human contact helps to calm us, reducing the negative effects of the hormone cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. It has the ability to diminish the sensation of ostracisation and anxiety. It also supports our ability to cope, leading us to reach out to touch and hold those who are in distress. Now, as over four million people describe themselves as always or often lonely, there are greater portions of our society unable to receive the support they deserve.
While we cannot replicate the fundamental biological effects of human touch, we should not entirely neglect methods of support. Online interactions, distanced meetings, exercise, and hobbies are each great ways to improve mental wellbeing. We should continue to phone loved ones who live alone, just as we should remain active during our own isolation. The essential detail, however, is that we should not pretend that these are suitable surrogates physical contact.
As a society, we must remain hopeful that, we will return to closeness as quickly as we have adapted to distance. Having overcome COVID in the future, there may be hesitancy, just as certain as there will be nervous fumbles with hugs, but, if we are to stand a chance at recovering our nation’s mental health following months of isolation, we must be determined to persevere.
Bristol Counselling and Psychotherapy
If you are experiencing isolation or a lower quality of mental health during this time and would like to seek professional psychotherapy services in Bristol, then please contact me for an initial consultation either by email at email@example.com or phone on 07751 271709.