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Coronavirus isolation: What a lack of touch is doing to us

Life without physical contact has led to increased stress and anxiety for many of us


Our nervous systems are wired for touch. Picture posed.

Our nervous systems are wired for touch. Picture posed.

Our nervous systems are wired for touch. Picture posed.

Aoife Rafter (28) can vividly remember the first hug she shared with her boyfriend after 17 weeks of cocooning.

Aoife, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when she was nine years old and cervical cancer when she was 27, spent four months in her bedroom in her family home in Co Kildare, eating her meals alone and avoiding all physical contact with her mother, sister and her mother’s husband.

It was only when case numbers dropped and Ireland slowly reopened that she deemed it safe enough to see her boyfriend again.

“It’s very hard to explain our first hug,” she says, “but it was almost like when you get into bed after a long and tiring day. It was a release of tension, I guess. Just a massive release.”


Aoife Rafter says cocooning affected her mental health. Photo: Instagram

Aoife Rafter says cocooning affected her mental health. Photo: Instagram

Aoife Rafter says cocooning affected her mental health. Photo: Instagram

Physical touch is essential for our physical and emotional health. It reduces stress, relieves pain and allows us to communicate feelings that we can’t convey with words alone.

By a stroke of irony — or perhaps prescience — the largest ever study on touch was launched in January of this year.

The Touch Test, led by BBC Radio 4’s All In The Mind and Wellcome Collection, gathered responses from 40,000 people across 112 countries from January to March 2020.

The preliminary results of the study were revealed earlier this month and show that most people reported a positive attitude to touch — even before the pandemic. Four out of five people liked being touched by a friend; 54pc of people said they got too little touch in their daily lives.

The researchers would no doubt get very different responses if they launched the study today. Nevertheless, it highlights the benefits of physical touch as well as the importance that most people place on it.

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“Our nervous systems are wired for touch,” explains Dr Anne Kehoe, Chartered Member of the Psychological Society of Ireland.

“We see the impact of physical touch when we think about newborn babies or premature babies. That’s what we see as the true power of touch. We’re very social beings and touch deprivation definitely increases stress, anxiety and low mood, and has a myriad of physical effects. The impact of the loss is massive so people are grieving physical touch and the feeling that it gives our senses.”

Many of us are missing human touch, but the loss is especially pronounced for people who have been advised to cocoon and avoid physical contact with their loved ones.

Valerie Saunders, a home carer with Right at Home, says the older people she cares for are craving physical connection.

“There’s one lady who’s 91 and I would have always given her a hug and a little kiss on top of the head before I left,” she says.

“Leaving her now is not the same. I actually feel like I’m leaving something out, like part of my job is not done… I feel as if I’m deserting her. And I know she feels it.”

Another one of Valerie’s clients told her that she’s missing physical contact with her grandson. “The grandson would always run in and wrap his arms around her. Now he says, ‘I can’t give my nana a hug’. It must be awful on the kids — how do you explain to an eight-year-old who’s given his nana a special hug for all those years that they can’t do it anymore?”

Like Aoife, Valerie, who lives in Dublin with her 13-year-old son, can vividly remember her first hug after weeks of avoiding physical contact.

“Coming home for the first month, I didn’t hug my son. I was too nervous to hug him. And I missed that — I missed my son because he’s all I have. When we started to learn a bit more about Covid, I’d come home, change out of my work clothes, shower and put on fresh clothes. And just to give my son the hug! I didn’t want to let him go.”

Dr Kehoe says some people are much more wired for touch. “They’re huggers or they’re more tactile,” she explains. “They use more social touch — they’re the people at the party hugging more people or shaking more hands. And they are probably suffering more because they used it in the past to regulate themselves.”

Others may not realise that they are experiencing the effects of touch deprivation, she adds. “People may not know why they’re irritated or why they’re upset. Some people who are cocooning now have had social touch in their lives for 70-plus years and now that it’s gone, they may not know why they feel so isolated or down. It’s having an impact that we can’t always articulate or, at times, don’t even realise.”

For Reeta Cherie, a Dublin-based yoga teacher and the founder of Just Breathe Yoga, the lack of physical touch in her work presents some challenges.

Before Covid, Reeta would always ask students before she offered a physical adjustment — and most of the time they were happy to get a hands-on assist. Nowadays, she teaches largely online and she has to rely entirely on her voice to explain a pose.

“People would often say ‘I love when I go to class and the teacher adjusts me. It feels great’. Adjustments are a big part of the class,” she adds, “and I can’t offer them when I’m teaching online.”

Psychosexual and relationship therapist Aoife Drury has also noticed a craving for connection among her clients.

“I don’t use any physical touch in my work but there are times when I’m sitting in front of the screen and I really feel that palpable energy of desire from them for that hand on the shoulder or that hand on their hand,” she says.

“I’ve particularly seen it among people who are isolated and living alone, perhaps; people who perhaps can’t get home to their families. They’re feeling hopeless and I think that is being amplified by the lack of physical proximity.”

This was certainly the case for Aoife Rafter, who believes cocooning, and a lack of physical contact, took a major toll on her mental health.

“I’ve been very unwell with my health over the years but the cocooning is the hardest thing I’ve ever done on my mental health. It was much more difficult than the cancer journey. And it was because I couldn’t take an embrace from anybody. When my mental health was at its weakest, I couldn’t take any sort of support from my sister or my mum or my boyfriend and I’ve never experienced that before. It was surreal.

“My anxiety and depression went through the roof and I’ve never been that bad. It kind of came in really slowly and gradually but I didn’t really realise that until it was at its worst.”

Aoife eventually ended up in A&E over her mental health. “That was really hard to tell my friends and I couldn’t even hug them,” she says. “Social distancing feeds that disconnect. I’ve been telling the girls I feel so disconnected and then they can’t fulfil that connection by embracing me.“

Aoife has always been aware of the impact of touch deprivation so she tried to find alternative outlets. “Having four dogs, Brax, Rocco, Poppy and Penny, at home was brilliant,” she says. “I could really embrace with the dogs and give them a little squeeze and have them up on the couch with me.”

She also started practising self-massage to help ease tension and she’s now doing a distance-learning diploma in reflexology.

Self-massage is something we could all add to our self-care routines, says Aoife Drury.

“Self touch doesn’t have to have sexual connotations. It’s about slowing things down in the shower or giving yourself a little hand massage, or even trying to find different temperatures with something like a heated eye mask.”

Reeta, who describes herself as a “natural hugger,” recommends yoga postures that involve wrapping the arms around the body or hugging the knees to the chest. “Basically, the skin is missing the feedback,” explains Dr Kehoe, “so anything you can do to give the skin the same feeling will help.

“People tend not to talk about everything that’s missing,” she adds. “They want to talk about moving forward and everything else, but it’s important to acknowledge our need for social touch — and to find ways to replace it.”

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