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  • Writer's pictureRebekka Mikkola

Coronavirus is Exacerbating the Touch Deprivation Crisis

The world is currently in the midst of the most serious health crisis in living memory. In early April, it was estimated that half of humanity in 90 countries was in lockdown, due to COVID-19. Social distancing measures mean that many people, especially those living alone, are deprived of our most basic need for human touch.

In addition, places where people would usually go to receive touch, such as cuddle therapy sessions, massage sessions or even trips to the hairdresser are no longer possible. Many are now feeling the adverse effects of a lack of touch and social connection.

What is touch deprivation?

Touch deprivation as the name suggests, arises when we have little physical contact with others. In her book, The Power of Touch, Dr Phyllis K. Davis says that behavioural scientists prefer the term ‘skin hunger’, which suggests that the skin quite literally hungers for touch. She explains that, “We touch and desire touch because it is our biological key to the door called ‘species survival.’”

In his excellent book, The Loneliness Cure: Six Strategies for Finding Real Connections in Your Life, Professor Kory Floyd explains that the concept of deprivation is, “The difference between what we get and what we want or need.” In other words, touch deprived people receive less touch than they want or need. It’s therefore possible to still receive some touch, but feel deprived and desire more to feel balanced and wholesome.

Professor Floyd identifies Germany and Italy as being the top two affection deprived countries. Interestingly he also explains that there is a link between the closeness of a culture to the equator and the level of contact those cultures express, “The closer people are to the equator, the hotter their climates are and the higher contact their cultures are.”

How big is the touch deprivation crisis?

In 2019, Nordic Cuddle interviewed Ria Beßler (Bessler), the lead author of a study that used a new tool to measure touch deprivation. It was found that out of a sample of 110 students at a German University, 72.7% of participants weren’t receiving as much touch as they wanted or needed. This feeling was shared by men and women alike.

In The Loneliness Cure, Professor Floyd mentions that he undertook a survey on behalf of Nivea to find out how deprived American adults really are. He received nearly 1,500 responses in a few days from across the US. These responses represented every ethnic group, economic class and relationship status and revealed that 75% of adults agreed that, “Americans are in a state of affection hunger.” This statement was equally supported by men and women. The survey also showed that we touch our mobile phones more than we touch other people.

It may not be appropriate to extrapolate these results further than their original studies, but prior to the coronavirus, a picture was beginning to emerge of roughly three in four adults in both surveys wishing they had more touch and affection in their lives.

What are the effects of skin hunger?

For newborns and young children, touch deprivation can be deadly. Dr Davis explains in The Power of Touch that in 1248, the German Emperor Frederick II took children away from their parents and caregivers. The children were given to nurses as part of an experiment to see what language children would speak if raised without hearing other people talk. The nurses weren’t allowed to talk to or touch the children. As a result of the no touch policy, every baby died before they could talk.

Dr Davis goes on to explain that, “In the United States, less than 60 years ago, infant mortality was almost 100 percent for infants under one year of age being raised in orphanages. It wasn’t until after World War II, however, that studies were done investigating the cause of marasmus, or unexplained infant death, and a link was established with respect to lack of touch. Infant mortality rates declined dramatically in those places where TLC was applied.”

Dr Davis sums up the impacts on young children as follows: “A baby can be born without sight, without hearing, without the ability to taste or smell, and survive. A baby born and given too little touch dies. It is that simple. Touch is needed for life.”

Amongst adults, the effects can include aggression and physical violence, immune system and mental health issues, sleep problems and lowered self-esteem amongst many others. Professor Floyd also suggests that loneliness or affection deprivation is associated with increased physical pain, Epstein-Barr virus activity, cholesterol and alexithymia. It’s also associated with decreased natural killer cell activity, ability to concentrate, and relationship satisfaction.

A surprising finding comes from Ashley Montagu who said that a lack of touch can even show up in our bones, “During a period of growth [where] the organism has suffered a lack of love, you will see bilaterally transverse lines of retarded growth at the distal ends of the tibia and radius of the individual.”

Find out if you have some of the basic signs of touch deprivation here, and read more about the effects here.

Who can be affected?

Anyone who isn’t receiving as much touch as they desire. As the studies above show, both men and women can still be touch deprived even when they receive some touch.

A taboo has also arisen around touch, with doctors and teachers more reluctant to provide comforting gestures as Paula Cocozza discussed in her fantastic Guardian article. This puts patients and children at risk of losing out on crucial touch opportunities.

In light of the Coronavirus crisis, skin hunger has been exacerbated to a maximum level. People are separated from their friends and family, and are experiencing physical and psychological isolation.

Can touch deprivation have wider social impacts?

The developmental neuropsychologist, James Prescott, spent more than three decades studying the causes of aggression. In one of his studies that looked at 49 indigenous cultures, he found a link between low levels of affection towards children and high levels of violence in those specific societies. His work showed that we can create real change and bring about a more peaceful and less aggressive society by the amount of affection we give children.

In her book, Dr Davis says, “Prescott found something else in his studies, something important for us regardless of our age: The single variable of whether newborns in a certain society were carried on the body of mother or caretaker throughout the day predicted, with an accuracy of 80 percent, the peaceable or violent nature of adults in that society.”

How do people cope with deprivation?

Professor Floyd suggests in his book that people try to cope with affection deprivation in various ways. Some people try to live vicariously by watching romantic movies or reading romantic novels. Others find groups to join or embrace their loneliness by practising meditation or spending time in nature.

On the flip side, Dr Davis suggests that, “Regrettably, there are some people so touch deprived that they can’t stand watching other people touch. Not only do they not touch, but it even upsets them to watch others touch.”

However, others turn to less constructive methods to fill the gap in their lives. These can include risky sex, drugs, gambling and eating (binge-eating, as well as anorexia at the opposite side of the spectrum).

What can we do to get more touch in our lives?

Professor Floyd discusses some ideas for how to ask for more affection in his book, which is a recommended starting point. His book also has a questionnaire for assessing your current level of affection deprivation.

Pre-COVID19 and lockdown, visiting a cuddle therapist, massage therapist, hairdresser or any other bodywork specialist was a way of getting more touch in our lives, especially for those living alone.

There are ways that you can also replicate the effects of touch during the lockdown. For example, you can engage the pressure receptors in your skin by brushing yourself in the shower or doing yoga. Depending of your country’s health advice and allowed list of activities, going for a fast walk may be an option, which can have the same effect. If you have a pet, stroking them can be a substitute for human touch.

Deep breathing exercises can trigger our parasympathetic nervous system and help us feel more relaxed in these trying times. You can trying breathing in for five seconds, followed by breathing out for five seconds and repeat this for a minute or more. You can also read Dr Stuart Farrimond’s research about hugging soft toys and how this compares to hugging people here.

Where can I find self-massage techniques?

If you’re interested in learning some basic self-massage techniques, check out my videos on:

How will our approach to touch change after coronavirus?

This is a question on many people’s minds and right now it’s impossible to answer with any certainty. A lot will depend on government and health advice, in addition to progress with vaccines and drugs to treat the virus.

When we interviewed the author and former trend forecaster, Courtney Maum, she pointed out that “you prove there is a desire for something by pointing to its lack.” We can definitely say there is a lack of touch in the world right now and it might be that as the situation improves, people seek out more platonic touch.

Other experts are more cautious. In an interview with WIRED, Dr Tiffany Field said, “I suspect when this is over a lot of people will still be keeping social distancing.” However, she also said, “I’m very concerned, because this is actually the time we need human touch the most.” This is because touch reduces cortisol levels, which compromises our immune system and kills off our natural killer cells, which would otherwise attack viruses in our body.

Time will be the judge of how our attitudes towards touch change. We encourage everyone to follow government and health advice and stay safe as this crisis continues.

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