A Touchy Subject
/ Author: Robert Schmidt
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A Touchy Subject

Human touch is a rarity in this day and age. What does that mean for our happiness, and for our health?

By Robert Schmidt, National Representative

A lot can be said about COVID-19 and its impact on society. Whether economic, social, or on our mental health or personal finances, the impact is likely larger than we realize and will last longer than we can imagine. 

One area of impact that I have spent some time noticing, talking about, and writing on is touch in the time of COVID. Yes, this introverted thinker and solitary man will pontificate on the topic of touch!

No handshakes, no hugs, no pats on the back. We are even told to not touch our faces. Add a dose of isolation on top, and we have set the stage for a grand experiment into the lack of physical contact. 

Unfortunately, I do think we have grossly underestimated the power of touch and what its absence does to us as humans. 

I remember accidentally shaking someone’s hand the other day and how strange and wrong it felt! Contrast that to an earlier time when another male colleague told me that humans only get the full benefits of a hug when you hold it for at least 40 seconds. We then proceeded to test it out on each other, much to the confusion of onlookers. Imagine the reaction if that were done today!

My colleague was actually on to something. Research shows that there are many positive effects associated with proper interpersonal touch. Greater physical affection during childhood has been shown to lower rates of physical violence in adulthood. Babies also gain more weight and have more advanced motor skills with increased touch. 

Touch releases oxytocin, which enhances feelings of trust and connection, while also lowering cortisol and blood pressure, reducing stress. Here is an interesting example: A study linked increased class participation and volunteerism among students to a simple, incidental touch on the back by their teacher. This is only a sampling of the positive impacts of touch that research has uncovered.

What can we do in the age of touch being absent? Well, we still have our ‘household bubble’, do we not? If there is ever a time to start hugging your kids or your partner with more vigor, it is now.  

My daughter is an introverted and independent soul like her dad and typically does not reach out for hugs. The other day she was reading on the couch and I decided to embrace her, much to her surprise. Her quizzical expression was priceless, but I could sense she appreciated it, regardless of the smirk she was giving me.

Contrast that to my son, who is extroverted and emotionally in tune. A few months back I decided I would let him know about some of the emotional upheaval I was experiencing. Well, to my surprise, he got up from watching YouTube, walked over to me, and gave me an extended hug of the variety I mentioned earlier. 

It actually brought me to tears. I did not realize it, but it was exactly what I needed and had been missing. And I got it from my young son, of all people!

Some of us, however, do not have people around all the time. I experience this on the weeks I don’t see my kids, for example.

I went through an interesting cycle in therapy where I learned ‘self-soothing’ techniques. My therapist likes to focus on the outer workings of emotions on our body. She will sometimes stop me midsession and ask, “Where are you feeling that emotion in your body?” She likes to say that our bodies are us, in that we are connected through our body, mind, emotion, and spirit. 

To that end, when I am exploring areas in which I need to be ‘seen’, accepted, or found worthy (which is very human), we would translate these feelings into touch. For me, a self-hug can replicate the love of a parent, caregiver, or close friend. A pat on your own back can stand in for praise from a colleague or friend for a job well done. Likewise, a stroke on the arm can be a substitute for the affection of an intimate partner.

There are times when I am feeling down, lonely, or working through something on my own and I cannot receive any feedback or physical affection. It is then I will give myself that self-hug of acceptance. It sounds and feels strange at first, and it will differ from person to person. But it is powerful, and it works.

In this touchless time, let us not neglect ourselves as whole beings, body included, and make a special effort to give and receive the touch we need to thrive—while following pandemic protocols, of course!

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