The fear and possibility of transmitting the virus resulted in physical encounters that were virtual or if not, were kept at a recommended distance of at least 6 feet. Do such preventive measures pose a risk to other needs?
What is it about touch that is so critical? Touch is the first sense to develop in the womb (Gillmeister, et al., 2017) and is our first social interaction at birth. Skin receptors are coded for positive and negative effects. For example, the caressing of newborns may not only alleviate their distress, but more importantly, result in the touch sensation of pleasantness. Moreover, touching a newborn’s cheek stimulates nursing. Studies also found that the more an infant was affectionately touched, the better their cognitive and neurobehavioral development (Beltran, et al., 2020).
Throughout one’s life, there are many positive outcomes that derive from being touched.
Some of the medical, physiological, and psychological effects derived from touching behavior include:
- Just under the skin are pressure receptors called Pacinian Corpuscles that signal the vagus nerve in the brain. This nerve can slow the heart and decrease blood pressure (Gueguen, 2004).
- Various cortices in the brain release hormones when the person is being touched (Field, 2010). Cortisol reduces stress (Jones & Glover, 2014) and oxytocin can improve interpersonal relationships because the person feels close to and trusting of another.
- Touch, as in hugging, can boost the immune system as well as reduce pain and aid in sleeping. Touching is a basic experience of our body and helps us develop a sense of self (Gillmeister, et al., 2017).
Touching is as important as being touched. Engaging in touch:
- Improves muscle development and motor functioning.
- Is a means of expressing one’s emotions.
- Assists in learning about and navigating essential constructs (i.e., understanding weight, temperature, texture); thus, increasing cognitive development.
Touching is also one of the hallmarks of social interactions.
Touching promotes attachment and relational security to others (Beltran, et al., 2020). For example,
- It communicates care and love (Owena; Gillentineb, 2011) as well as concern.
- Shaking hands can be a gesture of greeting, agreement, or negotiation.
- Kissing those you love expresses affection. We hug one another when we want to convey positive feelings toward each other or when we want to express our support and concern for someone in need.
- Touching psychologically enhances the quality of one’s life (feeling cared about, expressing care for others), and is a powerful means of demonstrating romantic love.
Variables that affect touching behavior
As one moves into late adulthood, there may be fewer opportunities to have “tactile experiences” (i.e., no children to take care of, no sexual partner, the death of or separation from people one cares about). This can result in a deprivation of touching behavior leading to a lack of attachments and increased anxiety and depression (Turp, 2000).
It should be recognized, however, that the power of social touch is not uniform across gender, culture, and age (Gallance Spence, 2010).For example,
- As one grows older, the comfort derived from being touched may change.
- Women may perceive more reassurance than men when touched.
- Across cultures or religions, there is a wide variance as to the acceptability of who is touched and the types of touch. For some in these groups, the established mores may be problematic.
There are also people who experience distress when being touched or touching others. This may be due to a poor history with mothers where there was very little tactile behavior during one’s developmental years or the experiences were punishing or erratic (Beltran, et al., 2020).
Discomfort regarding touching is not limited to mother-child interactions. The experience of touch can also be harmful when it is unwanted, physically hurtful, or exploitive. Unfortunately, experiencing such events can have serious ramifications for the individual at any age as well as interfere with one’s ability to benefit from appropriate touching. Perpetrators frequently justify the touching as necessary, normal, healthy, loving, or deserved. These and other characterizations are as pernicious as the behavior itself. Mental heath treatment may help rehabilitate the abused individual and work toward viewing appropriate touch as a healthy and enjoyable sensation; but for some, this re-conceptualization of touch may be very difficult to achieve.
evertheless, touch remains an important sensory agent; particularly, in soothing distress (because sometimes words alone are insufficient).
For more than a year, we were instructed that when encountering others, we should wear a protective mask as well as keep a reasonable degree of distance. These warnings and others were offered because of the potential of contracting COVID. Consequently, it was reasonable to develop a reluctance to be among people. With the easing of COVID restrictions, physical distancing is not as prominent as before. However, some of us may have acquired a strong fear of physical closeness and touching that could carry over beyond the threat of the pandemic. That is, having heightened anxiety of being physically close to, let alone touching others, for fear of exposure to all sorts of communicable diseases. No doubt this avoidance of closeness may occur for some. Yet, it seems more likely that most people will return to their former habits regarding touch and socialization as well as being more vigilant about distancing themselves from people with contagious illnesses.
The current cautions regarding the denial of an inherent sensory modality that can enhance one’s life are difficult for many. However, given the possible life-threatening alternative, we can be more vigilant regarding touching for now. This epidemic may have sensitized many of us about the significance of the loss and gratification of touching and being touched, especially for those who live alone. Moreover, some of us may come to realize how our need to communicate love, care, and concern to one another has been affected. As with many major catastrophes, when the threat and actual loss of life is real, those who survive the passing of the threat tend to learn from the experience and become more aware of how important it is to express our affection to those we care about and love. We do so not only through our words and deeds, but also through the power of touch.