Has the pandemic had you missing hugs from your nearest and dearest? Social distancing is vital to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but it's depriving us of our human need for physical touch

As humans, we’re wired for physical connection. From the moment we’re born, we learn that touch is crucial for building relationships with others – it’s how we get fed, and are taken care of.

And, although you may not usually notice it, our lives are full of human touch. From shaking hands when you meet someone new, to the comforting squeeze on your arm from a friend when you’re having a tough day, life is full of gestures that keep us connected to other people.

But, thanks to the global pandemic, we’ve been starved of physical contact for months.

Why is touch important?

It’s an instinct to try to establish an emotional closeness with others by being spatially close. Touch is thought to be crucial for building healthy relationships, and is how we establish intimacy with partners.

Of course, touch isn’t just important for our romantic connections. Physical contact also has a direct link to our sense of mental wellbeing. Human touch has the power to stimulate pathways for the love hormone oxytocin, as well as the natural antidepressant serotonin, and the pleasure chemical dopamine.

When we hug, touch, or sit close to someone else, levels of these chemicals rise, reducing our stress levels, and boosting our happiness. Plus, it tackles loneliness. Even the gentlest touch from a stranger has been shown to reduce feelings of social exclusion.

What’s more, skin-to-skin contact is vital for our physical health. Touch can calm certain bodily functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure.

What happens when we lack physical touch?

There is no doubt that social distancing is essential to slow the spread of Covid-19. But, there are consequences to missing out on regular touch, especially for a prolonged, undetermined period. Missing out on physical contact means we are deprived of its social, psychological, and physiological benefits.

The pandemic has been like a period of famine, and we’re all experiencing an insatiable hunger; human touch is the forbidden fruit, and social distancing is the gag in our mouths, starving us of physical closeness.

While we’re all facing these restrictions, it’s thought that some people could be feeling the impact more than others – specifically, those who show their affection mostly through physical acts.

According to author and marriage counsellor Dr Gary Chapman, there are said to be five love languages: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. The language you connect with most determines how you communicate in a relationship, to feel a rapport, care, and connection with your loved one.

Although Dr Chapman was thinking of romantic couples when he defined these love languages, you can apply them to any interpersonal relationship.

People whose love language is physical touch prefer physical expressions of love – a hug, a kiss, a pat on the back, holding hands – over all other acts. Of course, this is problematic in an era of social distancing because it can result in feelings of neglect when these acts can’t be performed.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a very touchy-feely person. Don’t get me wrong, I love a cuddle, but physical touch isn’t the love language that I’m fluent in. But, even for me, it feels alien not to bring my loved ones into an embrace these days, having not seen them ‘properly’ for so long. So, I can only imagine that, for those who speak the love language of physical touch, social distancing must be unsettling.

If you have a dog or cat, stroking them can act as an emotional substitute for human interaction for the time being

How can we combat skin hunger?

With social distancing guidelines likely to be required for some time still, it’s important to do what you can to feel close to others. Touch starvation doesn’t have to last forever.

Counsellor Juliette Clancy says: “Although there is no exact substitution for human touch, there are some alternatives that might be worth considering that offer similar health benefits.

“Anything that moves your skin will stimulate pressure receptors and, although we may immediately think of massage, which is normally administered by someone else, self-massage gives the same kind of stimulation.

“Yoga, walking, jogging, riding a bike, hugging yourself, dancing and singing, are actually also forms of self-touch.”

Juliette recommends the following simple ways to feel more connected right now:

Spend some quality time with animals. If you have a dog or cat, stroking them can act as an emotional substitute for human interaction for the time being.
Try to smile. Although we are facing uncertainty, laughter is one of the easiest ways to feel better, and release endorphins.
Get sentimental. Keepsakes can help us feel the presence of loved ones. Photographs, treasured gifts, are reminders you’re cared about.
Boost your endorphins. Vanilla and lavender are scents linked with the production of endorphins. Studies have shown that dark chocolate and spicy foods can release endorphins, too.
Keep in touch. Technology makes it easy to maintain face-to-face communication, and this can be a highly effective substitute for physical contact. Video chats are a great way to see and be seen.

Of course, nothing can replace the importance of human contact. But, until we can safely socialise without the need to keep our distance, we can find alternatives to satisfy this basic human need.