With people around the world practicing social distancing and self-isolation to curb the further spread of coronavirus, some are starting to feel the effects of a lack of human touch. Whether it’s shaking a coworker’s hand or hugging a friend, most people are accustomed to some level of platonic physical touch on a daily basis. But for those who are quarantining alone or with people with whom they don’t have physical contact, loneliness and social isolation are growing health concerns.
According to Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, a lack of physical touch can affect people in more ways than they might realize. “Touch is the fundamental language of connection,” says Keltner. “When you think about a parent-child bond or two friends or romantic partners, a lot of the ways in which we connect and trust and collaborate are founded in touch.”
It’s not just about how we feel emotionally. Keltner adds that “touch deprivation” can impact people on a psychological and even physical level. “Big parts of our brains are devoted to making sense of touch and our skin has billions of cells that process information about it,” he says. “The right type of friendly touch—like hugging your partner or linking arms with a dear friend—calms your stress response down. [Positive] touch activates a big bundle of nerves in your body that improves your immune system, regulates digestion and helps you sleep well. It also activates parts of your brain that help you empathize.”
Psychologist Sheldon Cohen and other researchers at Carnegie Mellon University cited hugging specifically as a form of touch that can strengthen the immune system in a 2014 study investigating whether receiving hugs—and more broadly, social support that gives the perception that one is cared for—could make people less susceptible to one of the viruses that causes the common cold. The researchers had 404 healthy adults fill out questionnaires and respond to telephone interviews to assess their perceived daily social support and frequency of interpersonal conflicts and receiving hugs, for 14 consecutive evenings. Then, the researchers intentionally exposed each participant to the cold virus. Broadly speaking, the participants who had reported having more social support were less likely to get sick—and those who got more hugs were far more likely to report feeling socially supported.
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