As the dust settles on what has been a troubling journey through the precautions, restrictions and hazards brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is easy to predict that portions of our society are irrevocably altered. We’re emerging slowly into a post-acute world that includes the evolution of new strains like Omicron–begging the question of whether a “post-Covid” existence will really materialize. Still, as a new normal is beginning to take shape, it’s unclear which of the many changes forced on us by the pandemic will become a part of our collective consciousness. Will masks be the norm, especially during flu season? Will we queue up for frequent boosters? And what about daily contact with our fellow human beings?
Behaviors that just a year and a half ago would have yielded a few sideways glances, like trading hugs and handshakes for elbow taps, are now relatively standard practice. However, few people would agree that these safety measures feel totally natural. After all, our species is inherently social and thrives on physical touch; therefore, the avoidance of physical touch is largely antithetical to our nature and can threaten personal mental health. There’s a term for it: touch starvation. If we never return to the physical camaraderie we once knew, what will happen to us? Who will we decide to touch, and under what circumstances? Will social distancing replace physical closeness?
Questions like these often lead to feelings of hopelessness and anxiety because human beings are social creatures. We deliberately seek each other out, desire closeness and companionship and suffer during extended periods of separation or isolation.
Even before the pandemic, our physical communication had been waning. This decrease can be largely attributable to internet and cell phone use, which has increased within the past decade, resulting in increased isolation and reliance on devices as a primary source of communication and social engagement rather than participating in face-to-face conversation. In her 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, MIT professor, and sociologist Sherry Turkle asserts, “If you put a cell phone into a social interaction…it decreases the empathic connection that people feel toward each other…decreases the emotional importance of what people are willing to talk about, and it decreases the connection that the two people feel toward one another.” Unlike the pandemic that forced physical distancing and isolation, the amount of time we devote to our cell phone is often by choice and may be seen as an easier option than interacting with others.
Human beings’ desire for physical expression is not a new concept but one steeped in research and the biopsychosocial understanding of the mind’s reaction to touch. Whether between parent and child, friends or lovers, relationships are deepened by the release of oxytocin. Produced by the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland, this hormone is released when people come in physical contact with one another. Physical touch is so powerful that in response to it the release of oxytocin so closely resembles the reward of a drug use “high” that the significance of the experience may protect against developing a substance use disorder. Oxytocin creates feelings of bonding, arousal, trust and empathy. This is true even during more casual interactions, such as talking, making eye contact, laughing and other positive social exchanges.
Since the pandemic began, 40 percent of adults have reported experiencing anxiety or depression, a massive 30 percent increase from a January – June 2019 report by the National Center for Health Statistics. And as it was in Fall 2020, we are facing more threats to our physical and mental health as Covid numbers rise once again. The breakthrough Omicron variant is causing renewed stress, as it is not yet well understood, and questions remain about the ease with which it spreads and the effectiveness of current vaccines against it. Fears over Omicron are compounded by the current flu season. Both of these threats further exacerbate stress and anxiety levels as well as compromise our hope of entering a “post-Covid” world.
A study on physical contact and loneliness asserts that a lack of physical touch is not something to which people will eventually grow accustomed. Physical connection assists in maintaining one’s mental health and affects physiological well-being, thereby making touch an essential component of human bonding, emotional connection and positive mood states.
One study found that oxytocin counters the effects of cortisol. Known as “the stress hormone,” cortisol, if consistently secreted, can disrupt bodily processes and increase health risks, including anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease and sleep problems. However, regular secretion of oxytocin decreases stress levels and boosts immunity. A 2014 study by Carnegie Mellon University also found that receiving hugs reduces the likelihood of infection and illness. Physical affection provides a supportive influence that counters the effects of stress.
As we continue navigating the pandemic and taking every precaution to stay physically healthy, we must also ensure that we take equally good care of our mental health and emotional needs. Here are some ways to get the oxytocin your body and mind crave while remaining cautious:
- Don’t downplay the importance of hugging those you live with. Touch encourages feelings of safety and trust, reduces cardiovascular stress, elicits compassion, improves mood and lessens fear. Set aside time in your day to hug your loved ones.
- Explore other types of touch, like foot massages or holding hands. Pick up a book on reiki, the energy practice that reduces stress and anxiety with the healing power of touch.
- If these types of activities are not possible, get outside for some exercise, connect via Facetime or phone with the people who love and understand you best or call on neighbors and meet outside either masked and/or at a socially safe distance.
The isolation, depression and touch starvation many have experienced during the last 18 months have proven that a sense of community is an essential part of human nature and adaptive functioning. While no one knows what our “normal” will look like two, three or even five years from now, we must take care of our physical health while also continuing to nurture our mental and emotional health.
Ascellus bridges the gap between mental and physical health to accelerate recovery for our nation's workforce. By connecting the workers' compensation industry with our expert behavioral care and evidence-based treatments, we deliver high-quality outcomes, helping injured workers reemerge with increased strength, purpose and resilience in the workplace.