With lockdown now having lasted more than 100 days, Graham Peacock looks at the wider impacts of social distancing.
Yesterday, in what was my first trip outside since March that didn’t involve a supermarket or a park, I drove to my friend’s flat to drop off some books. I had been there only two months before, for what, unbeknownst to me, would be my last social interaction for some time. It was a night spent listening to music in his kitchen while we made katsu curry and talked about, among other things, a growing health issue we didn’t yet realise we understood very little about. I hugged him as I left, like I always do, already naively planning our next evening. Now I was sitting in the car park beneath his flat telling him I was on my way up. Now I was placing the books in a blue gift bag at his door and moving down the hallway. We spoke briefly at a distance, incapable of not pointing out how unnatural the situation was. In the whole time of knowing each other our actions had never been more considered, but the exact reason for our unease was unclear.
I now understand that what we were both experiencing was "skin hunger". Though perhaps not a term many of us are familiar with, it is a neurological condition scientists have understood for some time. It’s the condition used to explain why prisoners in isolation cells often crave the touch of another human more than their own freedom. It’s the reason why teenagers raised in "low touch environments" are more prone to acts of aggression and violent outbursts. And it’s the reason why, under current circumstances, many of us are feeling unhappy, anxious and stressed.
When we start to feel nervous or tense, our bodies release the hormone cortisol: a warning from our brains that it’s time to de-stress. One of the most effective ways of doing so is skin-to-skin contact with another person. When we are touched, or when we touch someone else, the pressure receptors that carry signals to our brain are stimulated. This then calms our nervous system, allowing our feelings of anxiousness to subside. Regular touch also prevents a continued high cortisol level which, in some cases, can result in high blood pressure, weight gain, fatigue and, ironically, in our virus-fearing, quarantined world, a weakened immune system. Beyond just a scientifically-proven means-to-an-end, human touch is an instinctive, evolutionarily-engrained custom in our everyday lives. We hug our loved ones to show we care for them. We shake hands with strangers. We brush past colleagues in work. Touch can express what words cannot. And so it’s no wonder, in our new world, where hugging a friend is unthinkable, where books are placed on doorsteps with previously unimaginable apprehension, that many of us are struggling to adapt our behaviour.
It is important to stress, however, no one specific event is the sole cause of this shift. Global pandemic or no global pandemic, scientists have been aware for some time of touch’s declining influence. Touch-free technology has been remodelling how we interact with the world for years. Fear of inappropriate touch in the workplace — to the relief of many — has seen a decline in colleagues hugging. Many teachers have reported they no longer wish to be alone with their pupils, let alone touch them in an affectionate manner, for fear of misinterpretation. The gradual shift towards this new way of life was imperceptible to most, yet our current situation has placed it directly at the front of public consciousness.
A global spike in technological connection has sought to remedy this loneliness. WhatsApp, Skype, and Facebook have all reported an unprecedented increase in user interaction on their platforms. They claim to bring our friends back into our homes and facilitate genuine connections. Yet, if this technology we praise so highly is so great, why are 58% of us still reporting feeling isolated? It’s a number that suggests that changing your Zoom background and laughing at your friends’ fake display names are not adequate substitutes for real eye contact. On these platforms, communication is accommodated but intimacy is impeded. It contradicts our natural instincts. It is not a visual or verbal connection we are missing, then, but the physical intimacy only transmittable in real life. This is why many of us are struggling with the idea of video calls in general — they serve only to remind us further of what we cannot have.
There are, of course, alternate ways to reduce stress when human-to-human touch is not an option for you. Touching pets, for one, has been proven to lower cortisol levels in a similar way to human-to-human touch. It’s an intimacy that goes both ways, as animals likewise respond better to physical intimacy over verbal praise. Practising mindfulness, exercising, and maintaining a regular sleeping pattern are also valuable methods of lowering cortisol levels without interacting with others.
A growing understanding of personal boundaries, as well as a lingering fear of disease that will remain in our society for some time, means that we are unlikely to ever go back to our touch-happy world. Whether you live alone or in a busy household, this time has made us all aware of the power of touch. As a borderline germaphobe, I don’t miss the world where heavy-handled doors outnumbered automatic ones. I still don’t know the correct way to shake someone’s hand. And I don’t particularly want to be hugged by my work colleague for doing my job. I do miss listening to music in my friend’s flat though, and I do miss hugging him when I leave. Hopefully, the world we’re heading towards brings with it some form of balance between these two states. Maybe this isn’t the end of human interaction as some fear, but an acceleration towards a way of life that has always been inevitable — and possibly even welcome.