Thoughts on Touch Deprivation

The pandemic has increased touch deprivation by limiting physical contact with others especially for people who live alone.

Yesterday, at the liquor store, I handed my credit card to the cashier behind the plexiglass. She backed away and asked me to place the card directly into the machine — no contact!

This small interaction reminded me of how we have become touch averse. Some of this aversion comes from the pandemic with cautions about hugging others and admonitions to stop handshakes in favour of elbow bumps. We have learned to stay 2 meters away from others. Cashiers wear rubber gloves and disinfect surfaces between customers.

Even before the pandemic, our North American culture increasingly viewed any form of interpersonal touching in social situations as inappropriate.  Teachers were admonished to stop hugging students, including young children in kindergarten and Grade one who needed comfort.  All forms of touch in workplaces were discouraged for fear of sexual misconduct allegations. Churches stopped hugs when ‘passing the peace’ because of germ phobias.

We learned to keep our distance from each other before we had to practise social distancing. We knew those comforting non-verbal behaviours were powerful tools of support but left them behind due to political correctness or fear of an allegation.

person in black t-shirt holding persons hand
Touch Deprivation — photo courtesy of mhrezaa on Unsplash

Touch Deprivation in Elders

I became aware of touch deprivation in the 1990s when visiting my ageing mother.  She lived several provinces away from me but I tried to fly out to visit her every 6 to 8 weeks as I knew how lonely she was.  My mother had outlived most of her friends and family. As she grew older, my sister and my brother-in-law were her primary social contacts. I tried to help despite the geography separating us.

When I visited she often wanted to sit beside me on the sofa just holding my hand and chatting.  She commented that living alone was fine but she missed having someone to touch or to hug. She talked of how lonely she felt.

Lack of physical interaction with others contributed to her loneliness.  I believe that she suffered from touch deprivation but never used such precise terminology.

Unfortunately, the small prairie town where she lived offered limited resources to reduce her isolation. She refused to have a pet to hug as she did not have the energy to care for a pet.  Moreover, she knew that a cat or dog would outlive her.  Options such as volunteer home visitors, reiki or massage therapy may have helped the skin starvation but were not available.

Babies Also Need Touching

It’s a well-accepted fact that babies need skin-to-skin contact.  We have read horror stories about ‘failure to thrive’ syndrome suffered by infants in orphanages who stop growing and even die because they are not held.

Cuddling and hugging a newborn helps with hormone regulation for both mother and baby.  It relaxes both mother and baby. As well, it is said to reduce crying and to induce sleep!

Hugging a baby promotes bonding. It promotes physical growth and stimulates brain development. Hugs release oxytocin also known as the love hormone that enhances the immune system.  This short article describes the many other hugging benefits including fostering emotional resilience and healing.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, how often have we heard grandparents and/or grandchildren express longing for a hug? We’ve seen pictures of elders in nursing homes touching the window glass while loved ones stood outdoors. Lack of touch may have more devasting effects for elders and children but everyone benefits from the healing benefits of nurturing touch.

We feel better emotionally and physically after a massage, a backrub, or a comforting hug. Simple gestures have profound positive effects.

Let’s resume using touch whenever it’s appropriate — hold hands with your spouse/partner and give that person a back rub or a foot massage. Once safe to do so, hug your grandchildren, your extended family and your friends — and, hold those hugs for a second or two longer!

2 Replies to “Thoughts on Touch Deprivation”

  1. After 12 months of treating everyone outside of your immediate household as a pariah, emerging from the pandemic is going to be most strange. I was thinking only the other day how much I was longing to hug family members whom I’m presently prohibited from even seeing and then began to imagine how good it would feel to be able to hug everyone I see. I fear I might get some dreadful reactions if I try it the day after restrictions are completely lifted.

    1. I don’t think any of us will be comfortable with life as it was per-March 2020. As much as I want to see people in my social network, I’ll hesitate to hug them. Firstly, because of their possible reaction (as you predict), and secondly, because I’ve conditioned myself to stay separate. I will hug family members and close friends with whom I have strong ties but will hesitate to embrace those with whom I have weaker relationships.
      Be well,

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