Home Mental Health & Well-Being How Touch Deprivation Impacts Our Mental Health

How Touch Deprivation Impacts Our Mental Health

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Man is by nature a social animal, said Aristotle, a great philosopher. The most important element of humankind is to develop secure attachments. From the moment of birth, our brain tries to develop attachments through cuddling, gazing, feeding, playing etc.

Out of the five important sense organs, skin spreading all throughout the body is the first sense organ to develop in the mother’s womb. The first sense of touch occurs in the womb, and then touch becomes a vital experience of life contributing to the brain, along with the socio-emotional and cognitive development of the child. The role of touch in the development of attachments is essential.

Lack of touch at the times of infancy has shown adverse effects on the behaviour such as hostile aggression, shyness, difficulties eating food, stubbornness, and excessive crying. 

The importance of touch

Ashley Montagu, an anthropologist, claims that ‘touch is not experienced as a single physical modality, as sensation, but effectively, as emotion’, since our skin contains receptors that elicit an emotional response. Moreover, a sense of touch such as a strong handshake, a pat on the back, a tender kiss, a tight hug and more are often understood as a language that communicates things better than any verbal languages.

‘Touch is ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and it affects damned near everything we do. No other sense can arouse you like touch. We forget that touch is not only basic to our species but the key to it, explains Dr Field. 

‘It’s as important as the oxygen we breathe in, the food we eat – we are social beings,’ says Dr McGlone, Professor of Neuroscience and head of the Somatosensory & Affective Neuroscience Group at Liverpool John Moores University. But with the given circumstances of prolonged physical separation, it is difficult for an individual to fight against their nnate nature.

For more than a month now, humans have not been a part of social gathering. We have not met our friends and families. A hug to our loved ones has become impossible. We have not seen the faces of our classmates or coworkers. Besides people who are quarantining by themselves, the lack of physical contact is also affecting the ones who are living with someone. 

Remember what you do when you are sad or feel like your world is falling apart? You either go to a friend or any person you are close to. A hug from that person, or just lying down on your mother’s lap while she caresses your face might not solve all the problems in your life, but it surely calms you down.

Dr Jon Reeves, a clinical psychologist from  Washington says that: ‘Touch is our first language and one of our core needs. The touch of a safe, trusted loved one can alleviate anxiety and promote a sense of well-being without doing anything else.’ Hence, a gentle touch or a hug from your loved ones helps in the improvement of the person’s mental health. The human touch also provides a sense of warmth. It makes people realise that somebody cares for them. Research has shown that touch has been seen as therapeutic in nature.

How lack of touch can impact us

As Dr Tiffany Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine has said that lonely people can succumb to touch deprivation and need to be embraced. Touch deprivation is defined as a lack of tactile stimulation of our largest sensory organ, the skin, particularly in early infancy Further Dr Tiffany also argued that touch deprivation aggravates depression and debilitates the immune system whereas positive touch helps in the reduction of the stress hormones like cortisol, that can impair the immune system.

The C-tactile afferent, a recently discovered touch-sensitive nerve, when stimulated, releases oxytocin and endorphins. Additionally, it was also noticed by Dr Field that a touch calms the nervous system, it reduces that heart rate and blood pressure.

Therefore, self-care at the times of stress and anxiety includes a massage session or a spa day, that helps in slowing down the brain waves, that reduces the release of substance P- a neurotransmitter that increases pain sensitivity.

Touch is more than just creating a connection

With the technological expansion and outbreak of the COVID-19, e-therapies have become prominent. Touch as seen earlier also plays an influential role in therapies too.

The physical touch with verbal assurance soothes the client. Various studies have seen that touch enables containment and safety. The presence of the therapist in the same room and the touch on the shoulder or arm is said to be comforting and stabilising for the client.

Further, earlier research found that touch shows a sense of deeper trust and a stronger connection between the client and the therapist. It also indicates a sense of comfort and improves communication.

Research also supports that taking someone’s hand at the times of anxiety and stress soothes the person, it increases a sense of empowerment as well as intimacy. Additionally, touch facilitates the communication of incapable verbal messages.

Given the importance of touch, the question arises, what happens when people lack physical contact? Professor McGlone argues that reduction in physical contact could lead to mental health issues. ‘And the brain, if it doesn’t get a reward system it has evolved to need, will quite often find inappropriate replications which could be drugs or alcohol or food. They are driven to fill that reward void.’

Possible ways to avoid touch deprivation

At present, there are  more than 30,000 positive cases of COVID-19 in India and around 3.14 million on the global front. With the spreading of the novel and omnipresent killer virus, more than half of the world is under lockdown.

Given the situation, various nations are asking their citizens to lock themselves up inside their houses as the only way to fight the pandemic. While adhering to these measures is important to flatten the curve and stop the spread of the virus, this lack of social contact can impact our mental health and well being.’I know it is important to maintain distance to keep ourselves and others safe, but I am worried about how after this is over we may be left with a population afraid to touch one another, suspiciously eyeing strangers on the subway or streets,’ says Kristen Radtke, a write from New York.

Various professionals have suggested that hugging the people you live with can be helpful while hugging yourself i.e., wrapping your arms around your body activates the reward system generated via the  C-tactile afferents. People who have pets are also advised to spend more than usual times as a substitute for human interaction to reduce stress and anxiety.

For people isolating alone, Dr Field recommends self-massage, as it stimulates similarly to that of a touch from a loved one. Yoga, crunches, massages, walking around the room, rubbing a tennis ball on your legs, dance stimulates the pressure receptor. Hence, any kind of activity or exercise that moves the skin is going to be effective. Pay attention to how a long effective warm shower as well feels on your body. 

Dr Jon Reeves says that we can try to approximate the human torch through comforting objects and activities. He explains that old objects and gifts of sentimental value can help ease the negative emotions. An old stuffed toy, a childhood blanket and other objects that we associate with the close people in your lives are to be kept close.

Dr Sarvenaz Sepehri, a clinical psychologist based in California, suggests that we replicate the positive feeling by focusing on the other senses. Try getting back in touch with a memory that travels you back to a time when you felt hopeful and connected to others, remembering every detail of it, helps us relax for a moment amid the stress.

Final thoughts

It has also been suggested that we interact with our neighbours while maintaining social distance by either making eye contact or saying a simple hello. Last but not the least, even though we are compelled to maintain physical distance, the technology favours us. People are recommended to stay in touch with their friends and families, FaceTime them frequently, check on them and not lose their bond over time. 

History has taught us that emergency measures taken during the crisis have the tendency to stick. For example, Prime Minister William Pitt Younger introduced income tax as a  temporary measure to pay for the equipment of the French Revolutionary War in 1799 and we are still subject to it.

Therefore,  keeping in touch with people will hopefully prevent physical isolation and touch deprivation from becoming a ‘norm’ for future generations.

Niharikaa Mehta is a researcher from India. 

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