Our bodies are designed to respond to touch, not just to perceive our surroundings.In fact, we have a network of dedicated nerve fibers in our skin that recognize another person's touch and respond emotionally to it, validating our relationships, our social connections, and even our sense of identity.
So what if we don't get it?
This was one of the first questions the neuroscientist asked.Helena WaslingPhD considered when social distancing restrictions were put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.At the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, he studied these nerves:known as tactile C afferents or CT— and its importance to our emotions for more than a decade.
"What I noticed from the beginning, the first week, when they told us we weren't going to touch each other, was that people didn't know how to act anymore," he says.
Even if you don't consider yourself a tactile person, touch is, or has been, embedded in the social fabric of our lives.From meeting a new colleague and appreciating their handshake, to giving a friend a long hug when we haven't seen them in a long time, this is one of the fundamental ways we learn to connect. "Removing that is a very big operation," Wasling says.
new york psychologistboy windePhD agrees; “Touch is something we associate with emotional closeness, and its absence we associate with emotional distance. We may not fully appreciate this, but in pre-pandemic life, there were literally dozens of little touch points throughout the day."
This matters not only in the landscape of our minds, but also in the landscape of our bodies. Responding emotionally and socially to touch is so biologically fundamental to us that CT afferents are present on almost every inch of our skin, absent only on the palms of our hands and soles of our feet.
It's those nerves, explains Waslingin his TEDxGöteborg talk, specially adjusted for three things: a light touch, a smooth movement and around 32 degrees Celsius (89F). Which happens to be the temperature of human skin. Therefore, they are programmed to respond better to a gentle touch from another person.
Instead of simply telling our brain that it's been touched, which is the role of other receptors in the skin that help the primary somatosensory cortex process bodily sensations, CT afferents send signals to the insular cortex. "This is a deeper part of the cortex that is more concerned with your emotional balance," Wasling explains. “Then you will get a kind of vague feeling. At best, she says, “That was good. I am accepted. I feel more secure now. Someone's counting on me." CT afferents also have pathways forParts of the brain that deal with who you are socially.“
It can be incredibly difficult for people who have lived without that connection for a long time, Winch says."I have friends and patients I work with who haven't been touched in a year. Not at all. No handshake. And they really suffer. It's very distant and cold not getting a chance to hug and it can leave lasting scars." .”
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Hugs, the form of contact we probably miss the most, are especially important and emotionally uplifting, Winch says.“When someone is crying and we hug them, it's to comfort them, but it allows them to cry more. People tend to hold on until someone puts an arm around them, and then they fall apart because that hug represents security and protection, and the closeness we feel knowing and trusting that person.”
Furthermore, the benefits of touch that we miss are not only emotional and social, but also physical; he canreduces painmito emphasize, and general well-being. These are the areas, Wasling says, where we can stick to when we have to be without social contact for long periods of time.
Here are some ways we can ease the struggles of living without that closeness, both for ourselves and for the people in our lives.
Take a warm bath or shower.
While it doesn't elicit the same physiological response as interpersonal contact, Wasling says that the slow movement of water on the skin likely elicits an afferent CT response. Also a warm bathrelax your muscles, which can help relieve tension.
Hug a pet or ask someone to walk your pet.
“Just being around a furry animalproven to reduce stress, lowers heart rate and blood pressure,” says Wasling. You also have a social relationship with your pet: she depends on you and needs you to go for them.
There wasa significant increasein people adopting pets during the pandemic, and at least one study has identified itpossible therapeutic benefitsof human-animal relationships when we are denied our normal levels of human social interaction.
If you can see someone in person, be fully present, even if you can't touch them.
As we remove touch from our social interactions, we need to consider what we can emphasize. "Maybe we can see each other better when we have physical meetings," Wasling suggests. "We can be sure that we will see each other because touching someone is saying: 'I see you, I acknowledge your existence'."
Don't be afraid to have deeper, more meaningful conversations where you're really listening, especially when you know someone may be isolated or alone. While these interactions don't activate the same touch-based neural pathways, they still stimulate our sense of belonging and social intimacy, Winch says.
Don't just reach people who are lonely – connect with them in a meaningful way.
It seems like everyone from our employers to the TwittersphereUS Vice President Kamala Harrisreminds us to check our single friends. But are we on the right track?
"When we say 'sign up,' it's like a checkbox. Check; done," says Winch. But that is not enough. While the boredom and frustration of lockdowns are similar experiences for everyone, being cut off from physical proximity Regular contact with friends and family is especially difficult for people who are alone, the elderly, those living alone, and those high risk that they can't even risk a hug.
“If you just sign up, that won't be enough. You need to talk for at least 15-20 minutes for this to be a meaningful conversation. You really need to connect,” says Winch. If you're both feeling tired from Zoom, try going for a walk while talking on the phone.
If friends described feeling scary or unrealistic, try your best to understand that the lack of contact during this time was a significant emotional loss for them. One that you may never fully understand.Don't try to say "I know how you feel"if you are not in the same position.
"You know when you touch things, they're real to you," Wasling says. "One of the reasons why I think playing is so important is that it convinces you that you have a place in other people's social world."
As we look towards a vaccinated future, it is difficult at this time to gauge how the pandemic will change our societal attitudes towards touch in the long term.Shall we shake hands? hug your teammates? A UK study carried out from January to March 2020, mainly before lockdown measures were put in place, found this to be the case.54% of peoplethey already felt they had very little contact in their lives. So we may want to get that aspect of our lives back as soon as possible.
But one facet that worries Winch is how the pandemic has really changed our relationship with touch; “We have taken what represents something so close and intimate and important, and now it represents something really dangerous that you should avoid. Even if we don't fully register it, the thought of receiving a hug will terrify us. it will take a while to get rid of the touch threat.
Watch Helena Wasling's TEDxGöteborg talk here:
About the Author
Maria Haltonis a science journalist based in the Pacific Northwest. You can find her on Twitter at @maryhalton
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