COVID-19 and Touch Deprivation

No-one can escape the fact that the world has changed beyond recognition in just a few short weeks. The body count continues to rise and is a stark reminder to us of how vulnerable humans can be to nature. Furthermore, usually frantically busy streets and cities are now deserted, shopping malls are closed, restaurants and bars are shut down and much of the world’s population is under virtual “house arrest.” Social distancing and lockdown are the buzz phrases of the hour.

How can we look after our mental health in a world where isolation (by necessity) has become more prevalent than ever and in fact, the new “norm.” What will the world be like after this threat passes? How many of these new and supposedly temporary “norms” will continue long into the future?

One of my biggest concerns as a therapist relates to the subject of touch deprivation and its future effect on society.

People of my age group will remember with great sadness the horrifying images from Romanian orphanages back in the 1980s (at the time the communist regimes across Eastern Europe disintegrated). News reports showing hundreds of babies and toddlers, in endless rows of cots, who had died or gone insane, because they had never been picked up or touched. What this reminded the world in a very graphic manner is that human touch is a basic human need just as much as food and water, without it humans simply cannot thrive.

In South American, France, Italy and Spain, warm hugs, affection and touch are an integral part of everyday life, yet the United Kingdom, along with the USA and most of Eastern Europe are already amongst the most touch-deprived nations in the world.  Social distancing will undoubtedly exacerbate the situation in these countries and introduce it to the others.

Whilst the current climate of social distancing and isolation is an emergency and temporary measure to slow the spread of this invisible killer virus, history teaches us that emergency measures introduced during crises have a tendency, to stick. Income tax, for example, was introduced in 1799 by the then Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, as a temporary measure to fund the costs of the Napoleonic Wars, we are still subject to it some 221 years later!

So how can we meet these basic needs during such challenging times?

Firstly, given that most of us are lucky enough to live with our loved ones and families, be sure to regularly touch and hug those you are confined with (unless of course, they have symptoms in which case they should self-isolate in a separate room) otherwise, make the most of these circumstances to build emotional and physical intimacy with those you live with. Secondly, if you have animals, be sure to pet them as often as possible. Above all (especially if you do not have family or animals around), at least keep your sensory and kinesthetic “muscles” alive. Do this daily, by touching (and feeling) things with texture! Polished stones or crystals, smooth wooden surfaces, soft toys, silk, fur, etc. Pay more attention to how the shower feels on your body and to the sensation of your clothes on your skin. Doing these simple things will bring you back into your body and keep your sensory acuity active.

To counter the effects of isolation (for yourself and others) be sure to stay in regular touch with people you know, especially those you may not have spoken with for a while. Check-in with them by webcam, telephone or even a good old fashioned letter in the mail. It is more important than ever to stay in touch and keep contact with the people you know during this period of physical distancing, doing so will hopefully prevent isolation and touch deprivation becoming a “norm” for future generations.

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