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Photography Paolo Morales

Science says touch is as vital as oxygen – here’s how to survive isolation

How to alleviate the effects of social distancing and being touch-deprived in quarantine

We’re currently facing an indefinite period of social isolation. A quarter of the world's population is now living under some form of lockdown and those who aren’t are being seriously encouraged to social distance and keep six feet apart. This means no handshakes, no hugs, no physical contact.

While these measures are extremely important to adhere to if we want to flatten the curve and slow the spread of the virus, this lack of contact is going to have some unintended consequences on our wellbeing. Humans are social animals, we require some level of social contact, and part of that involves touch. “It's as important as the oxygen we breathe in, the food we eat – we are social beings,” Dr McGlone, professor of Neuroscience and head of the Somatosensory & Affective Neuroscience Group at Liverpool JM University tells us. “Physical contact is absolutely fundamental to our overall wellbeing and our mental and physical health.”

So what happens now that we are facing the real possibility of going months without physical contact? How will it impact us and how can we alleviate the damage?

“We are wired at a biological level to respond to gentle stroking touch” – Professor McGlone

To start to understand this, we first have to understand the effects of touch and how it benefits us. To do that we need to get into the science. There are two types of touch systems in the human body. The first, the fast system, is what you think about when you think about touch. Someone or something makes contact with you – something touches your shoulder, someone jumps on your back – and you know it instantaneously. This is because there are fast conducting nerves that take the information to the brain instantly so that you can then make a decision and respond to whatever touched you.

However, in the 1990s, neuroscientists discovered a second system of touch sensitive nerves in our skin which are much slower at sending signals to the brain. We already knew about another type of ‘slow’ nerve in the skin, the one that fires off if we hurt ourselves (for example by touching a hot plate on a stove), and is responsible for generating the emotional experience of pain. However, the slow- touch sensing nerve, called a c-tactile afferent (CT), generates the opposite feeling when stimulated (for example by a gentle caressing touch or a hug), one of pleasure rather than pain. Stimulation of CTs releases the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin in the brain, as well as the brain’s endorphins. “We are wired at a biological level to respond to gentle stroking touch,” explains Professor McGlone. This gentle touch, he says, is appreciated as an emotion rather than a sensation and without it our mental health and wellbeing will decline.

CTs are differently distributed around the body, with more found in the back and in the face (where they were first discovered) while none, at the moment, are thought to be in the palm of the hand. You’ll probably have noticed that when you are exasperated or you're feeling a bit depressed, rubbing your forehead makes you feel a bit better. That’s because of the CTs being stimulated. When you touch or stroke your face, you are calming yourself down, self-soothing. This is also the general idea behind the havening technique.

There are also physical health benefits of being touched. When the skin is moved, pressure receptors are stimulated says Dr Field, a professor in the department of Pediatrics, Psychology, and Psychiatry at the University of Miami School of Medicine and director of the Touch Research Institute. This then slows down the nervous system and slows down the production of stress hormones like cortisol which in turn means that you save more of the natural killer cells that kill viral, bacterial and cancer cells.

“It definitely calms the nervous system,” Professor Field says. “We’ve measured that, we’ve seen that heart rate goes down, blood pressure is reduced.” Brain waves change to make you more relaxed and they’ve found that after being massaged you are more likely to sleep better which then decreases substance P which causes pain.

So, with all these benefits to our health, what will the impact of us not getting as much touch as normal? Professor McGlone says that reduction in the opportunity for close physical contact could compound the mental health problems that might arise as a consequence of the loss of social contact. “And if the brain doesn't get a reward system it has evolved to need, it will quite often find inappropriate replications which could be drugs or alcohol or food. They are driven to fill that reward void,” he says.

“Any kind of exercise that moves the skin is going to be effective” – Professor Field

To combat this, and since touching our face has been strongly advised against, Professor McGlone recommends hugging yourself – gently wrapping your arms around your upper arms and shoulders, which he says will have an impact on all the reward systems that are generated by activating the CTs. He also suggests that you hug the people in your household who you are in isolation with. There’s also good news in the form of pets who can also provide help because the giving of touches is just as rewarding as the receiving of it.

For people who are isolating by themselves, Professor Field recommends self-massage which gives the same kind of stimulation as touch from someone else. Brush yourself in the shower, rub your limbs on a tennis ball, do crunches, do yoga, stretch, massage your scalp, walk around the room. Anything that moves the skin, she says, is stimulating pressure receptors so it's going to be effective. “Any kind of exercise that moves the skin is going to be effective,” she explains. “When you’re riding a bike, when you’re walking or running, all of those are going to stimulate your pressure receptors.”

Despite the situation at the moment seemingly a bit gloomy and hopeless, Professor Field feels optimistic. “I'm hoping actually that there's going to be more physical interaction within families and between partners,” she says. “Hopefully they’re all giving each other back rubs which calms people down when they’re agitated about being pent up. Kids are at home with the parents, so there can be a lot of physical interaction that's normally missing when they are at school and parents are at work and there’s no touch. I'm hoping that more touch will come into our lives instead of less touch.”