A handshake. A palm on the shoulder. A side-hug. These are a few aspects of human life that many of us took for granted before isolation turned our lives upside down.
Now, when safe physical touch is harder to come by, the value in these everyday micro-affections have certainly skyrocketed. Especially since the only connection we can access these days is the internet. (Eye roll.)
And the word you’re looking for, to name this longing for physical contact, is touch starvation, skin hunger, or touch deprivation.
While human-sized condoms haven’t been made available yet for hugging, there are ways to get your needs met. Greatist consulted both research and experts for the simplest steps we can take to mitigate the side effects of isolation.
Human touch is a sign of compassion which, when done in a healthy, consensual way, can be incredibly comforting and soothing, says Dr. Brian Wind, PhD, co-chair of the American Psychological Association, adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University, and Chief Clinical Officer of JourneyPure.
“Physical touch excites the part of the brain that regulates emotion, reward, and compassion,” says Wind. “Essentially, it makes us feel good and makes us close to the people we love. It signals safety, trust, and a sense of belonging.”
Without touch, we start feeling isolated, depressed, and stressed, which can cause high blood pressure and influences us to cope in unhealthy ways, which makes us especially susceptible to illness.
Since we’re all vulnerable right now, the following resources will help you feel better by stimulating the production of endorphins in the brain.
If you’re craving cuddles, a weighted blanket has you covered — literally. Weighted blankets apply light, even pressure over the entire body, providing a soothing sensation of being gently held. A 2008 study found that customers reported a 33 percent reduction in stress and a 63 percent decrease in anxiety.
The best weighted blanket for you will be:
- 5 to 10 percent of your body weight
- lighter, and small, if you have mobility issues
- no more than 30 pounds
Remember the comfort we felt when sleeping with stuffed animals as children? Body pillows offer a similar, more adult, sense of safety and comfort.
“A body pillow can feel very much like a human form,” clinical psychologist, Dr. Carla Marie Manly, says. “Thus, when you can’t actually hug, cuddle, or sleep next to another person, a body pillow can provide a sense of comfort and security.”
Pro tip: Get a pregnancy pillow that cuddles you from both sides. It’s like being in a snuggle sandwich. Plus, pregnancy pillows are known for the soothing back benefits.
With many gyms across the nation closed and/or limiting access, it’s important for our physical and mental health to maintain a regular exercising schedule.
Foam body rollers, which prove beneficial both pre- and post-workout, provide a most welcome sense of sensory stimulation during touch-deprived times.
“Foam body rollers can mimic the pressure of an actual human-to-human massage,” Manly says. “By choosing firm or gentle pressure as desired, use of a foam body roller can be either calming or energizing.”
Just a 20-minute massage can greatly reduce anxiety and lower aggression. And since most of us don’t have access to a live-in masseuse, body massagers are a wonderful alternative.
“Body massages tend to provide comfort by easing soreness and stiffness, yet they also simulate human massage,” Manly says. “When actual human touch is not available, the sense of release and healing provided by a body massager can be deeply comforting.”
When you masturbate, your body releases a number of feel-good endorphins (dopamine and oxytocin) which temporarily improve your mood and eases stress. Masturbation is also known to be a natural sleep aid and can even improve your body image and self-esteem.
There’s another pandemic currently sweeping the nation: puppy fever. Evidently, the social distancing mandate has spurred the decision in many to purchase (or adopt) a pet. And it’s a wise decision! (Provided you can care for them financially and emotionally, of course).
Initial research has found that dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression and boast lower blood pressure in stressful situations as a pet’s presence elevates serotonin and dopamine levels.
They also offer companionship and are a great motivator for getting outdoors and exercising.
In quarantine, a warm bath or shower has become something we excitedly anticipate and look forward to. We can light a candle, toss in a bath bomb, play a soothing podcast, and bliss out.
“Warm baths or showers can be deeply soothing and healing as they stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system also known as the ‘rest and digest’ system,” Manly says.
“Water can be very soothing — particularly when it’s the ideal temperature for the user — as it decreases stress and anxiety.” Baths are particularly soothing as they trigger an instinctual feeling of prenatal safety and security.
Of course, nothing will authentically replace the magic of human touch. It is our first language and informs our core needs. Human touch is universal, intimate and specific.
But as safety comes first, there are times we must go without. And it’s not going to be easy — trust us, we’re having a difficult time too, even with the knowledge that this hold on affection is “temporary.”
If you’re really struggling, there are a few alternative ways to make sure you can safely get your touch on.
You can do a 2-week quarantine prior to meeting someone to give them a hug (from underneath the blanket or with gloves on). Or combining households so you’re not alone can be done with care.
You might also want to resist the cultural avoidance toward answering “how are you” honestly and just cry (we do it, at work!). Words might not be as healing as human touch, but being seen is a form of comfort too.
Self-care and community care are interlinked right now, so take care of yourself and with these “new normal” essentials.
Additional reporting and research done by Hilary Lebow.
Bobby Box is a journalist whose work on sex and culture has been published just about everywhere. Coming out as queer halfway through his career, Bobby has amassed a considerable and respected audience and has become recognized as a studied and shameless voice in the community. Follow him on Twitter at @bybobbybox.