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  • Stephen Scott Johnson

Touch deprivation – the unseen impact of Covid-19

When we touch other people, it reinforces our humanity.

Humans are social beings that crave companionship. From the day we are born to the day we die, our need for physical contact remains. Whilst we often take it for granted, touch has all kinds of positive benefits, from reducing pain and anxiety, to improving immune response. Countless studies prove positive touch can reduce cortisol in our bodies, a hormone linked to stress, whilst activating our ‘happy chemicals’: neurotransmitters oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin that help us form social bonds and enhance our experience of pleasure, motivation, and general wellbeing.

In “Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind,” Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist David Linden cites “the electric touch of romantic love, the unsettling feeling of being watched, the relief of pain from mindful practice, or the essential touch that newborns need to thrive.” All of these diverse sensations, he writes, “flow from the evolved nature of our skin, nerves, and brain.”

Consider the impacts of isolation: if hormones essential to mental and physical wellbeing are induced by touch, what happens when we suddenly stop? Do we crash and burn, or slowly decline until we reach a crisis point?

Throughout this pandemic it’s hard to not notice people’s despair at the loss of physical connection – friends, peers, colleagues, and partners. This forced redefinition of ‘meaningful human contact’ shows our adaptability as a species and is ultimately for our safety. But maintaining essential relationships through social technology does little to defend against the unseen chemical deficit of prolonged touch deprivation, which can diminish immune-system function and lead to a range of other serious concerns, including depression and suicide in adults, and cognitive and developmental delays in children.

The recent easing of coronavirus restrictions from ‘Stay Home’ to ‘Stay Safe’ is welcome news, albeit comes with a myriad of challenges for families and organisations. If we are still being advised to “avoid hugging and kissing where possible and give space to those around us”, it goes without saying we are far from business as usual. As if to reinforce this context, a few weeks ago when I hosted my Wellbeing 2020 workshop with a brilliant geotechnical team – a program that equips intact teams with a resilience and wellbeing blueprint – the hottest topic on the agenda was the future of work in a Covid-19 reality. Given how significantly the world has changed and how well we’re adapting, teams argue the risk of working together in physical spaces, and whether corporate culture is still even relevant, ‘a thing’?

Whether you’re preparing to go back to school or heading back into the office, it’s likely you have questions and concerns: Is ‘wave 2’ inevitable? Am I obligated to go back? Can I continue to do my job effectively from home? Will there be a sudden outbreak? What will happen if I get infected? What’s certain is that until a SARS-Cov-2 vaccine exists we must refrain from physical contact and pay more attention to mental and physical wellbeing. In the absence of physical touch, there are other ways to keep each other safe, connected, and sane – love languages of ‘quality time’, words of affirmation’, ‘acts of service’, and ‘receiving gifts’. What will you choose? Until next time,

Stephen

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