The Pandemic and the Pain of Losing Touch

The physical distancing required of us is taking a toll on our need for touch.

Posted Mar 29, 2020

 David Malan
Source: Getty Images, Photo: David Malan

In response to the coronavirus, people are being told to do something that doesn't come at all naturally to this social animal: Stay away from each other.

Ten days into the country's first shelter-in-place order, I've been hearing stories from the trenches of what that's actually like for people who, for instance, aren't able to see their grandchildren, because their kids don't want to take the chance; who can't visit their parents in the assisted living center, because it's on lockdown, and who wouldn't dare anyway even if it wasn't; who are massage therapists and hospital “baby cuddlers” who miss being able to nurture others; or who live alone and just feel damn lonely.

And the theme I see emerging from these stories is around the loss of not just our social life, but a particular element of it that's crucial to health and happiness, and among our most sensual human arts—touch. And I don't think it's overstating it to say that what we're feeling about all this physical distancing, sheltering-in-place, self-quarantining, six-foot socializing, and air hugging—is grief. Whether we acknowledge it or not.

We're grieving the loss of many (and for some people all) of our physical connections with others, as well as the loss of our primary language of compassion, how we express our caring and concern for one another. An arm around the shoulder, a hand to hold, a hug, a massage, a kiss. And during a time of such profound fear and uncertainty, being cut off from soothing human contact is heartbreaking at the least, and unhealthy at the worst. And it's a quality of sorrow and lonesomeness, of deprivation, that isn't going to be assuaged by Netflix-bingeing. It's going to be right there when we turn off the TV or finish up the home-improvement projects we're finally getting around to.

We can philosophize all we want about the character-building potential of this whole pandemic, the opportunities for personal and planetary growth, the spiritual lessons in love and loss, but it's still a gut punch, and the heart still doubles over with it. And it's part of what our spiritual teachers are telling us we need to sit with right now. (As we always have, of course, though not usually at this pitch.)

And what healing there may be in all this will depend on our ability—our willingness—to sit with our sorrow and let ourselves feel the ache of it, the sense of loss at not being able to touch and be touched, comfort and be comforted, and listen to the sound of our hearts knocked loose from their riggings. (And this is on top of whatever grief we might have around the loss of job and income, our sense of safety and security, our faith in the future, to say nothing of the anticipatory grief of losses yet to come.)

Touch is social glue, and without it, we're in danger of becoming un-glued. And there's plenty of science to back that up. In the 1950s, the University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow showed that baby rhesus monkeys raised by surrogate mothers preferred one that was made of soft terrycloth but offered no food to one that had food but was made of wire. Touch was more important than food!

And studies a few years ago at Brigham Young University demonstrated that chronic social isolation increases the risk of mortality by almost 30 percent, which will hit hardest those who are already having problems with, say, social anxiety, depression, loneliness, or substance abuse.

On the other (well-washed) hand, touch has been shown to be intimately related to well-being and stress reduction, certainly in its ability to strengthen the immune system, and in the case of shared hugs, in its protective effect against respiratory infections—both of which we could use right about now.

Touch was the first of the senses to come into being at the top of the evolutionary hour, and like the first single-celled creatures, we, too, are surrounded by a membrane—the skin, largest organ in the body—that mediates all our tactile exchanges with the outside world (and keeps the inside world from spilling out). The skin is both a barrier and a bridge, a conveyor of both pain and pleasure, and exquisitely sensitive to touch, every square inch of it endowed with 1,000 nerve endings.

And that touch has salutary effects all along the developmental arc. Premature newborns who receive just three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy a day for five to 10 days gain almost 50 percent more weight than preemies who receive standard medical treatment. Students whose teachers pat them in a friendly (and appropriate) way are three times more likely to speak up in class. NBA basketball teams whose players engage in more celebratory touch—high-fives, chest bumps, pats on the rear-end—win more games and play in a more cooperative fashion than teams that don't. And Alzheimer’s patients who are offered gentle touch are better able to relax, make emotional connections with others, and reduce their depression.

Touch is the first of the five senses to develop in utero and the last to go. “Long after our eyes betray us, our hands remain faithful to the world,” says Frederick Sachs, professor of physiology at the University of Buffalo.

Although any experience of loss, disappointment, or disenchantment comes with a certain payload of grief, in most cases (interpersonally speaking), the pandemic doesn't seem to bring on the kind of shell-shocking grief that attends the sudden loss of love, health or freedom. It's a somewhat slower burn, the dawning realization—as the days of distancing turn into weeks and possibly months—that we may be in for a lengthy siege, and the freedom to socialize at will that we take for granted will literally be kept at arm's length from us, along with many of our loved ones.

To be sure, a lot of us have already gone through a round or two of the classic stages of grief in response to the pandemic:

Denial: It's over in China; it won't affect us.

Anger: What do you mean, I've got to stay home and not go to work?

Bargaining: OK, I'll shelter-in-place for a couple of weeks, then it'll be over, right?

Depression: I can't believe I've lost my job, have no income, can't see my friends, and there's no end in sight. Wake me up when it's over.

Acceptance: This is really happening, and I've just got to make the best of it.

(You might also make a few unscheduled pit-stops at panic, self-pity, and Ben & Jerry’s.)

But there's a little-known sixth stage to the grieving process, according to David Kessler, who co-wrote with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross her book On Grief and Grieving, and which the Kübler-Ross family and foundation gave him permission to add to her iconic five stages—and that sixth stage is meaning. What you're able to take into the future with you from this experience, how you can allow it to change you for the better. And it's definitely worth giving this final stage some airtime.

But however many stages you go through (and they don't necessarily happen in a straightforward chronology), griefwork is in order, and it's a skill. One you can practice. One you can improve. And one intimately twined with gratitude, though it's important, I think, to be grateful not just for the things that benefit us, but the things that don't benefit us in the least because then we're really practicing gratitude. But the work begins with consenting to feel what you feel, without relentlessly distracting yourself from it—a word that means to be pulled apart.

You can also offer yourself a certain measure of self-soothing touch. Tiffany Field, the founder of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, suggests that, especially for those who live alone or are self-quarantining, some of the same physiological and emotional benefits that come with interpersonal touch can be had on your own, by stretching, yoga, self-massage, even just gently stroking your own face or arms, or rubbing your feet. Fostering a pet could also offer some measure of hands-on healing. 

Granted, the coronavirus isn't the only reason many of us are feeling touch-deprived. The United States routinely scores low on the physical-contact scale compared to, say, Latin American and Mediterranean countries. And we've been living in an increasingly high-tech, low-touch world for quite some time now.

A recent Nielsen survey found that Americans spend over eight hours a day in front of a screen of some kind—that's half our waking hours on Earth—and this is surely being amped up lately by having to shelter at home and punch into work online. All of which is exacerbated by social media, “no-touch” policies among teachers, coaches, and supervisors, and the fear of harassment and litigation (as appropriate as some of that is). But technology isn't the reason we're touch-deprived. We are.

In fact, during the pandemic, technology is one of the few ways we can stay in contact with people, especially for those who don't have family or pets in the house, and who can't “reach out and touch someone” for the time being, or the foreseeable future. And who knows how long it will last? I think people are beginning to understand that this isn't going to be over by Easter, which is when some people (who shall remain nameless) are suggesting that we'll be getting back to “normal”—though “normal” is probably what got us into this mess to begin with.

But as efficient as technology is at helping us reach across our present divides—and gratefully so—most of what we're conveying to one another through it is still words, and talking isn't touching. “Touch is far more essential than our other senses,” says Saul Shanberg, a neurologist at Duke University whose work led to the aforementioned discovery about preemies. “It's ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact."

Some linguists believe that language itself evolved as a substitute for the grooming behavior of our primate ancestors, which afforded us an intimacy that became more and more difficult to maintain as the animal groupings grew in size, and we lost easy physical contact with the members of our tribe. So we began vocalizing these bonds in the linguistic equivalent of delousing each other.

Maybe all our towering babble is proportionate to how badly we need that lost intimacy, how desperate we are to run our fingers through each other’s hair. And maybe this is something we need to bring back to the tribe: the sort of fine-tuning, the feel for each other, that we had back when we were nitpicking each other for real.

Maybe the current pandemic will ultimately help us remember this primordial need, in part by denying it to us, in the way Joni Mitchell meant it when she said, “You don't know what you've got til it's gone.”

Check out this short video clip from the ending of the movie Love Actually, which I think beautifully captures the essence that I've tried to explore in this piece.