We as individuals all react differently to stressful situations. It’s safe to say that a global pandemic, affecting our economies, geopolitical relations and even our day-to-day lives qualifies as a stressful situation.
A crucial but often overlooked area of increasing concern is our mental health, which has been adversely affected by lockdown, quarantine restrictions, and the stress and uncertainty surrounding the virus as a whole.
A study from the CDC reported that in June, 40% of Americans were struggling with substance abuse as related to their mental health, 11% considered suicide, and 31% expressed symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.
Even months later, these numbers are not encouraging. In the absence of contact, whether physical or not, our mental well-being has become seriously neglected. Here’s how human contact both negatively and positively affects us.
We Suffer without Physical Touch
A report published by psychiatrist Dr. Sanil Rege reports that the most basic stress accrued under quarantine has caused people to exhibit symptoms such as “low mood, irritability, insomnia, anger, and emotional exhaustion.”
It’s probably safe to say that at some point over the past six months, we’ve all experienced at least one or more of these symptoms.
But a decrease in positive physical touch especially has extremely negative effects.
A lack of positive experiences with touch, no matter how small, can contribute to serotonin deficiency.
Specifically, a lack of positive experiences with touch, no matter how small, can contribute to serotonin deficiency, leading to a bigger risk of suicidal behavior and symptoms of depression. Serotonin, often called “the happy chemical,” is a neurotransmitter in our brain that relays feelings of happiness, pleasure, contentment, and well-being.
Children especially who lacked positive physical touch in their most crucial periods of development have been shown to have developmental delays, stalled cognitive functions, and a reduced ability to form attachments. With children just as affected by lockdown as adults, this should be an area of awareness as well.
The Benefits of Physical Touch
In addition to the serious negative consequences found to be associated with decreased physical touch, there are noticeable benefits to instances of positive touch.
For one, these experiences (like hugging family members and handholding with significant others—albeit safely) decrease the brain’s cortisol production. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, and it’s released by the brain when we confront anxiety-inducing situations as a way to induce our natural fight or flight response.
Positive physical touch reduces cortisol and raises dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
Physical touch also provides a dopamine and serotonin release. Serotonin, as we know, promotes feelings of well-being, and dopamine is another neurotransmitter which helps us feel pleasure. Both of these releases can motivate us, and help us to feel satisfaction from the act of touch. Hugging, handholding, and even just talking to your mom can release oxytocin, which also decreases stress.
All of these chemicals play a huge role in our development as adults and in our mental health, meaning that they’re seriously stunted when our mental health suffers, impacting our overall health in the process.
Pets Can Help, Too!
If you’re unable to be physically close to others for whatever reason, don’t fret. There have also been numerous studies and reports conducted about the plethora of benefits that are linked to being close to pets.
As you might already know, animals can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Petting an animal can decrease our cortisol responses and up our dopamine releases in the same way that our positive touch interactions with people can.
Animals can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
Humane societies and shelters across the globe have also been heavily impacted by COVID-19. For those of us continuing to quarantine, adoption or even fostering an animal can be a really rewarding and productive way to get our positive neurotransmitters going and help out our local communities in the process.
While we’re monitoring all the important needs in our life — our bank accounts, our jobs, and other crucial responsibilities — we shouldn’t forget to include our mental health in that ranking of importance.
Physical touch has always been important, but now it needs our attention more than ever. While the virus has changed many things, it hasn’t altered our human need for contact; it’s just changed the way we should go about it.
Being intentional (even in small ways) and including positive physical touch in our expressions of self-care is valid and necessary. Neglecting that only hurts us in the long run.