Physical Touch in the Time of COVID-19

Physical distancing has reduced our ability to touch. Here's how to help.

Posted Apr 28, 2020

We’ve reached the point in quarantine where we are all weary. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and our nerves are becoming frayed, the unknown is taking its toll, and none of us are at our best.

Those of us sheltering with others have certain kinds of frustrations and losses. Quarters feel cramped, alone time is nonexistent, and relational difficulties are heightened. For those quarantining alone, completely different realities exist. Tedious sameness without interruption, lack of physical connection, and a profound sense of existential aloneness are real.

In each of these settings, the lack of both intimate and casual, social physical touch is becoming a source of agitation and sadness. The absence of handshakes, high fives, hugs, and other sensory experiences that, in normal times, are woven into our day to day interactions, is being deeply felt. Given that our connection has moved almost entirely online only adds insult to this injury since video chats often leave us feeling an increased awareness of our isolation and longing for the sensory experience inherent in encountering others in shared geographic spaces. It turns out that touch deprivation is experienced by many people much like dehydration is experienced by the marathon runner. If it goes unaddressed, it can take us out.

We are social animals who fail to thrive outside the presence of affirming connection. This human need is often met through touch or, at the minimum, within the kind of energetic experience offered by being in the physical presence of others. Articles are popping up, here and there, about why we need touch and social connection and how physical distancing has left us wanting. Right now, however, we need more than research and exploration of this reality as a concept. In order to get through this stage of the marathon, we need some practical tips and tools. It is crucial that we comply with physical distancing guidelines, so learning to address our needs for touch within our own settings is especially important.

To this end, I offer some ideas for those who are feeling particularly distressed by the lack of human touch. They are not perfect nor necessarily accessible for all. For this I am sorry. They are, however, jumping-off points for the touch-starved among us who grieve at the thought of sustained physical distancing. These are presented in order of actions that require only the body and mind to ideas that require objects that can be purchased or creatively invented if not already owned.

1. Explore and become comfortable with self-touch. Very likely, when we read this sentence, we think first of masturbation. Pleasurable self-touch, however, is not limited to this, can be both sexual and non-sexual, and can fill the gap during isolation. Given that the largest organ or our body is our skin, it makes sense that it will feel the absence of stimulation. Skin to skin contact, even from our selves, can be helpful when touch from others is limited. The key is to be intentional and to direct our attention to the feeling of our skin on our skin.

Learning acupressure points might be helpful here as would simple actions like scalp, hand, and foot massage. Applying a fragrant and/or emollient lotion might fit the bill. Even wrapping one's own arms around their shoulders or midriff in a sort of a self hug can provide the body with some much-needed attention.

If you are sheltering with someone in need of skin to skin touch, talk about how you can offer this in ways that don’t cost you more than you can afford. Many times a solid hug or gentle handhold can go a long way.

2. Work to mindfully experience and appreciate internal sensations. Pay attention to how it feels to swallow a cold drink of water, noting the experience from the mouth all the way down to the esophagus. Notice the feeling of air entering in and out through our nostrils. These can be meaningful ways of tending to the body.

3. Practice visualizations and meditations that center attention on being physically supported. Assuming a posture of alert wakefulness (sitting up straight with feet firmly on the floor or lying on the ground), expend mental energy imagining the ground or the chair rising up to support you as opposed to imagining your weight resting on the chair or ground. Work to feel the support of the surface that holds you. As we advance in this practice we can begin to imagine gravity itself exerting pressure on us to support us.

4. Increase the attention to all the senses of the body. Touch is but one of our many senses. When the body is starving for one kind of sensory stimulation that is not easily accessible, we can comfort the longing by tending to it in other ways. Offering ourselves new flavors and sounds, stimulating our sense of smell, and providing interesting things to look at can all help. Given our current reliance on the auditory and visual senses to connect us to others via the digital realm, tending to our sense of smell and taste can be particularly effective. Adding novel or unique spices to our foods will help. So will infusing our air with pleasant and stimulating scents via candles, essential oil diffusers, or even simmering a pan of water on the stove with some cinnamon or other herbs.

5. Stimulate the skin with textures and temperature. Gather up a diverse range of textured fabrics from your clothing or linen closet. Place these in locations where you can feel them regularly. Run them over your arms or legs or place them between your hands and make circular motions. Do the same thing with heat and cold, using water, ice packs, or heating pads to stimulate the sensory receptors in your skin. When you are outside, feel the texture of the sidewalk or grass. Pay attention to the feeling of wind, rain, and sun on your skin. Fill a bowl with steaming, hot water, place a towel over your head then lean forward with the towel enclosing your face and the bowl. Pay attention to the feeling of the steam on your skin.  For a unique experience, invest in a jade roller. While most commonly used to stimulate facial skin, they can be rolled over any part of the body and provide a smooth, cooling, gentle pressure.

6. Apply gentle weight or resistance. This is the time in life when nearly everyone would benefit by owning a weighted blanket or compress of some kind. * While it’s important to note that randomized clinical trials have not been done to provide scientific evidence of the ability of weighted blankets to soothe, in the general population, many people find them to be comforting. Appropriate compression of the body in the form of gentle weight (taking into account one's own body size) can feel soothing. Layering several quilts can approximate the feeling of a weighted blanket.

Eye pillows, such as those used in yoga and to aid with sleep, are helpful as are the type of grain compresses that can be placed in the microwave and used for sore muscles. Placing these objects on pressure points for short periods of time may be comforting. Using foam rollers or tennis balls to press on pressure points in the back, neck, limbs, or feet can also be satisfying ways of applying healing pressure. Similarly, wrapping up in a blanket and exerting a bit of an internal pull can feel like being hugged.

7. Give blood. If physical touch is a primary issue and you are comfortable giving blood, this is one way that you can both volunteer in a way that deeply matters and also have the physical touch of another. Contact your local blood bank for opportunities.

It’s going to be a while before we’re greeting each other with physical touch. This means it’s up to all of us to find healthy ways of tending to our bodies. Doing so before we feel desperate will go a long way toward us crossing the finish line of this marathon with our mental and physical well-being intact.

*Do not use a weighted blanket if you have sleep apnea, other sleep disorders, or respiratory difficulties.