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When Was The Last Time You Hugged Someone? How Touch Deprivation Affects Our Health

A senior citizen holds the hand of a care coordinator at a health facility in Miami in July 2020.
A senior citizen holds the hand of a care coordinator at a health facility in Miami in July 2020.

Think about it: when was the last time you hugged someone who was not in your “COVID bubble”? Perhaps it was a friend, partner or family member you reunited with after months apart. Maybe you haven’t ventured outside your COVID bubble at all.

We’re months into the new normal — where health experts have cautioned against hugging and shaking hands in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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Health experts say that touch deprivation can lead to anxiety, depression, and even a weaker immune system.

“It’s ironic that at a very time when we really need a strong immune system, things like the absence of touch is basically hurting our immune system,” said Dr. Tiffany Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami.

WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with Field about how to best navigate a contact-free world and its impact on our health.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: How does touch impact our physical and mental health?

FIELD: A handshake, hug, or back rub — even various forms of exercise — slow down the nervous system and it slows down the production of stress hormones. And when that happens, it saves the immune cells that fight off viral and bacterial cells. We need to do whatever we can to move the skin, that's why I'm recommending various forms of exercise.

On the mental health side, it’s the idea of human contact. In our survey, we found touch deprivation was highly related to depression, to anxiety, to sleep disturbances, even to post-traumatic stress symptoms. So it does have very serious effects. We found very low levels of people reporting that they touched their children a lot — only 21% — and only 33% of people said they touched their partners a lot.

In history, have we ever been as touch-deprived as during this pandemic?

I was doing a study before this pandemic with my students on airport gates, looking at social interaction. We noted that 98% of the time they're on their cell phones, very little touch going on. So, I think that we've been moving away from touch, starting with social media. COVID-19 is just aggravating it.

A 2013 study found that touch was the most important nonverbal behavior in the nursing profession, especially when treating older folks. What can we do to help the elderly to stay safe, but also to make sure that they're not touch-deprived?

We started out being most concerned about the elderly and especially the elderly living alone. But it turns out in our study that it's the young living alone that are more deprived than the elderly.

And I believe it's because the elderly have learned how to deal with having less touch. Still, I think that grandparents are really struggling with not seeing their grandchildren. People are trying to compensate by doing things like Zoom sessions, virtual kisses and hugs.

I recommend that within families, be sure everyone gets a back rub every day and kids can give their parents back rubs. Everybody knows how to do that. With the elderly living alone, you need to do things like walk around and even just lay on a bed and rolling back and forth, even sitting and crossing your legs and swinging your legs is going to be stimulating. Even washing your hands, that's stimulating a lot of pressure receptors.

Try to be as active as you can. Don't don't be sitting around too much because you need that activity as a substitute for the [loss of] touch.

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