For many of us, it has been slightly over two months since social distancing went into effect on a collective scale. Still for some, it has been even longer. With COVID-19 still in the air, it is possible many will still be living socially distant lives, at least to some degree, through the summer season. The coming of summer, under normal circumstances, is flavored with travel plans, pool days, parties, and other activities that a pandemic-tinted world does not allow for. Even as many businesses and public areas re-open, the future of large-scale social activities and the intimacies of casual interchanges are still largely uncertain. While no one can detail exactly what living in a semi-post-pandemic world looks like long-term, or even short-term, people can continue to cultivate new ways of caring for themselves and their relationships.
If you are among the 11% of people living alone in the United States, you know what it is like to be without the pros and cons of partners, housemates, or family in your living space (Duffin, 2019). However, living without the back-and-forth of casual domestic interchange coupled with a lack of social activity outside the home can breed poignant loneliness. Even if you enjoy your alone time, at some point everyone needs the regulation that comes from emotional and physical connection with other humans. Although communication technology can help to supplement the need for emotional connection, the lack of platonic physical touch can certainly take its toll.
A recent Texas Medical Center article responding to COVID-19 outlines the effect of touch-starvation, a condition that occurs when humans want to experience touch but are not able to do so, in this case, because of the fear of spreading COVID-19. As touch regulates the nervous system, going without touch for a long time can cause the body to release the stress hormone cortisol, ultimately exacerbating other mental health challenges and increasing susceptibility to physical illness (Pierce, 2020).
The good news is there are ways you can attend to the mental health deficits created by a lack of physical contact from other humans. One way is to warm up your Zoom calls. Increasing physical warmth is known to have positive effects on a person’s experience of interpersonal warmth. For instance, one 2008 study exploring the relationship between warmth as a personality trait and temperature found that participants who held a hot cup of coffee perceived the qualities of care and generosity in others more so than participants who were holding a cup of iced coffee (Williams & Bargh, 2008). Similarly, it was found in a second trail of the study that participants were more likely to complete generous acts themselves if they held a therapeutic hot pad than if they held a cold pad (Williams & Bargh, 2008). Now, imagine incorporating something warm to enrich your video chat experience. Perhaps the summer is not the best time for additional heat, so perhaps try this activity on a day when you want to crank up your AC an extra notch. After all, these times call for creative measures!
Another way to expand your options for physical touch alternatives is to create pleasurable sensory experiences. Even with social distancing in effect, there are still so many ways you can get creative by engaging the senses, perhaps more mindfully and gratefully than you did before the pandemic times. With our capacity for sight, touch, sound, taste, and smell, the options are truly limitless if you put your thinking cap on and dig up a few household items. For instance, research shows that touching different textures can produce different emotional states with soft textures generally yielding more positive feelings. And of course, you can use the material that is the most available of all—your own skin! One recent Healthline article offers several ways to incorporate self-touch into your self-care routine, including noticing where touch feels the most restorative, incorporating it into a body-scan meditation, and gentle self-massage where there is bodily tension. The practice of self-touch is also beneficial to care in the context of relationships with other people. As you become more aware of what touch feels good, you can then practice communicating this to partners, family, and friends, that is, when you can touch these people again.
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Duffin, E. (2019, November 22). Single-person households United States 2019. Retrieved May 29, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/242022/number-of-single-person-households-in-the-us/
Pierce, S. (2020, May 15). Touch starvation is a consequence of COVID-19’s physical distancing. Retrieved May 29, 2020, from https://www.tmc.edu/news/2020/05/touch-starvation/
Williams, L. E., & Bargh, J. A. (2008). Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth. Science, 322(5901), 606-607. doi:10.1126/science.1162548
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