Human contact

July 28th, 2020

Less human contact, more distance 

Every one of us would benefit from a hug right now. Some people are so eager to hug others that they’ve created plastic devices called the “hug glove” or “cuddle curtains” to decrease the risk of spreading COVID-19 while still hugging their loved ones. Before the COVID19 pandemic, it was normal to hug friends and family, shake hands regularly and even stand or sit shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers in public. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way that we interact with others. As we practice social distancing, elderly people are visiting with loved ones through glass, close friends gather outdoors at an unnatural distance for intimate conversation, significant life events are celebrated on video chat, worship and even school has moved online, and people who live alone are lacking physical touch of any kind. 

The importance of human touch 

Human touch is essential to our physical health and emotional well-being. Humans are hard-wired for touch. When a child is born, they bond with their mother and other caregivers through touch, and touch remains important throughout our lives, even though the type and amount of touch that we receive changes. 

Touch is a primary means of communicating with others, according to Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Keltner’s research has shown that humans communicate compassion, gratitude, love, anger, fear and other emotions through touch even more effectively than when those same emotions are expressed through facial and vocal communication. 

Research has also shown that human contact — touching or receiving touch from another person — has the ability to decrease stress and anxiety, increase sleep quality, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and boost the body’s immune response. Human touch also reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation, improves mood, and strengthens interpersonal relationships. Touch hits “all of the right buttons to affect physiological processes that are critically important to keeping us healthy,” says John Capitanio, a psychologist and primatologist at the University of California, Davis. 

The condition of going without physical touch is called touch starvation or touch deprivation. When a person lacks physical touch, they experience negative physiological and psychological effects. Touch starvation leads to higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression, which decrease sleep quality, increase heart rate and blood pressure and negatively affect the body’s immune response. 

Extended periods of touch starvation can lead to long-term psychological effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. “Every single medical disease including heart attack, diabetes, hypertension, asthma — every single physical disease — is altered if you are more anxious, more depressed or if you have more mental health issues,” said Asim A. Shah, M.D., professor and executive vice chair of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. 

While human contact is essential, it is also the means by which COVID-19 spreads from person to person. Our current societal situation is made even more challenging because touch starvation decreases the body’s immune response and leaves people more vulnerable to infection.

Loving our touch-starved neighbors 

Community is foundational to Christian faith. Physical presence with others, including touch, is integrated into our worship and discipleship practices: we share handshakes and hugs as we pass the peace, we hold hands while praying or visiting the sick and dying, leaders lay hands on heads or shoulders during blessings, and touch is vital to our traditional practice of the sacraments. But none of that human contact has been occurring recently due to social distancing. 

Many Christians have close relationships with people at church, and it may feel unnatural to forego human contact and practice social distancing, especially in a church setting. During this time when human contact is considered a high-risk behavior, how can Christians reach out to those experiencing touch starvation in a helpful way, without putting anyone’s health at risk? 

“We need to help people get creative about maintaining interactions that provide joy and contact,” says Valentina Ogaryan, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at UCLA Health in Los Angeles. While nothing can replace physical touch, there are other interactions that can stimulate our brains to release oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle hormone,” which increases feelings of social connection usually associated with human contact. One-on-one conversation via video chat, talking to someone on the phone while looking at their picture, or meeting outside at a safe distance but close enough to make eye contact can increase feelings of social connection. Gathering with others online for group singing, dance and workout activities, as well as laughter, can have a similar effect. Participation in these activities has the potential to decrease the negative effects of touch starvation and increase feelings of social connection, improving mental and physical health. 

While nothing may be truly able to replace a hug, reaching out to those who are experiencing touch starvation is one way we can share the love of Christ with others. We can prioritize time for one-on-one conversation, particularly with those who are lacking human contact. Churches can provide opportunities for people to connect in person at a safe distance or online for group activities, especially those that may increase feelings of social connection. Planning an online hymn sing, yoga class, or comedy hour may be what it looks like to “love your neighbor” during the COVID-19 pandemic, because we cannot offer a hug.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus