Physical touch is a need, not a want

Amidst COVID, touch is the sense that has diminished for all of us

The author makes a case for the importance of touch between humans, which has severely diminished during COVID. Photo ©BigStockPhoto.com
The author makes a case for the importance of touch between humans, which has severely diminished during COVID.

I have always been a person who loves physical contact in both my personal and professional lives. However, well before COVID created distance between people, physical touch was becoming less frequent and even taboo.

We lost two family members to COVID, and, thinking of the arc of their lives, touch was the first sense they entered the world with and the last thing they felt via a soft stroking of face and a goodbye kiss. Human fetuses are covered with tactile hairs, which appear at about the four-month mark and are shed by the seventh or eighth month.

Called lanugo (from Latin lana or wool), the hair is thin, soft, unpigmented, and downy. Some researchers feel these delicate hairs respond positively to the mother’s amnionic fluid gently washing over the skin, a sneak preview, if you will, of the mother’s warm embrace after birth. For me, this brings to mind the zero gravity floatation spas, where a half ton of Epson salts allows you to float in warmth.

Cultural differences

I have been blessed to travel to 89 countries, and you can certainly see touch has geographic and cultural variations. For example, in southern Europe, touch is ubiquitous. In northern Europe, however, to intimately touch someone is far more uncommon and even sometimes unthinkable. Meanwhile, the Arab and Muslim world embraces touch in certain millennia-old patterns, including men who are family or friends shaking hands while kissing on both cheeks. Even if you are in a region where men do not touch women or are in Japan where bows replace handshakes, spouses, partners, and families need touch in the privacy of home.

The issue of touch is, indeed, incredibly complicated:

1) “Me Too.” This movement exposed how touch can be a weapon men use against women in a battle to gain intimate access or control. For more than half the human race, touch has a completely different meaning than for the other half.

2) Technology. Social networking has replaced church groups, clubs, organizations (American Legion, Elks), front porches, backyard fences, and playgrounds as the primary sources of social interaction for adults, children, and adolescents.

3) Legislation. We’ve all seen the court cases and conflicting explanations. One party felt the touch was not only consensual, but welcomed. The other party did not want the touch, felt harassed, and filed a grievance or lawsuit. As a result, we saw less touch and sometimes felt untouchable.

4) Mother Earth versus Father Time. If you do the research or talk to your own family and friends, you will see, over time, physical touch has become more sexualized and even taboo. My wife, Teresa, used to often fall asleep with her beloved dad, Jim, but then her mom told Jim she didn’t think it was appropriate for them to share a bed, period. It stopped, she missed it, and still talks about it traumatically.

I used to bathe our daughter, Mikkel. I can still remember us playing using bath toys her mother used over three decades before, newer toys, waterproof books, and bubbles (always). Then my mother, Virginia, who was a travel agent (actually a farm wife but always sent the children on guilt trips), told us she didn’t think it was appropriate for a man to bathe a little girl. It, too, stopped. What did we gain versus what did we lose by stopping?

5) COVID-19. Not even a “prohibition era,” but a hard stop on touch, which became as taboo as coughing or sneezing in public starting in 2020. I have family and friends who got COVID, and some of them lost their sense of smell and taste (closely linked, it seems). In talking to them, even worse was being isolated and literally becoming untouchable.

As touch researcher, Laura Crucianelli, points out, “Touch is the sense that has diminished for all of us, test-positive or not, symptomatic or not, hospitalized or not. Touch is the sense that’s paid the highest price.”

Bringing us together

Everywhere we go are the ubiquitous reminders of six feet of distance. If two yards protect us, it is also what stands in the way of nurturance and care.

My brother-in-law, Rockey, and my mother-in-law, Valdie, both had COVID, and I was one of their primary caretakers. Care, by its nature, requires touch. I helped bathe them, dress them, get them in and out of chairs, medicate them, feed them, get them into wheelchairs, steady them in their slow-motion walker jaunts, help them on and off of the toilet, even up and down to take communion.

Crucianelli defines these actions as “instrumental touch,” whereas the more intimate and tactile touching—hugs, prolonged stroking, massage, etc.—is called “expressive touch” and aims to communicate, provide comfort, and offer support. Research into expressive touch shows you do not need prolonged contact or even motion to make a measurable, medical difference. Just a hand placed on an arm has, to put it in Star Wars terms, “The Force.”

You have heard it said or read the axiom, “You have two ears and one mouth….so you should listen more than you should talk.” Well, we also have one nose and two eyes, yet I have never heard you should look twice as much as you smell, but let’s focus on 10 fingers and the human body’s largest organ: the skin. Touch is a unique sense in that it begs for mutuality. Looking, smelling, and tasting can be solitary acts that can bring great pleasure, but to touch, we have to be touched back.

Touch, of course, doesn’t work in a vacuum. You cannot tickle yourself. Likewise, massaging your own scalp does nothing, whereas having someone else shampoo your head takes you to Seventh Heaven. Touch brings people together and is also a shortcut to communicating care, concern, and compassion.

My sister, Cheryl, is a physician and she says many of her colleagues on the front lines of COVID have used touch as a primary means to communicate. Masks and other protective gear cover up looks of empathy, smiles, and makes speech difficult; but a hand on an open patch of skin (foot, shin, forearm, cheek), pat on the shoulder, or hand squeeze can let patients know we see you, feel you, care for you, and reassure them they are not toxic and alone. “In a pandemic where touch is a proven vector,” says Crucianelli, “paradoxically, it’s also part of the cure.”

Right before the millennium and the most significant ball-drop in Times Square history, several studies looking at touch deprivation at Romanian orphanages and the damage it caused were published. For decades, children in these orphanages were barely touched in their childhood. These children almost uniformly had cognitive and behavioral deficits, along with lower levels of brain development. Studies following these orphans into adulthood showed they died earlier than children raised in nurturing environments.

Valdie told me how much she missed touch as she aged in general, and with COVID specifically. As people age, their eyesight, hearing, and taste diminish. Studies have shown gentle touch increases food consumption in a group of institutionalized seniors. As one senior told me when our church visited the local nursing home, “I can’t smell, see, hear, or even go the bathroom normally, but the touch of my church family communicates volumes to me.” By touching, they communicate right back to us.

In my next column, I will explore the biochemistry of touch and make the case for us not withdrawing from touch for pets and people, but actually using it as a powerful allied tool for the health and happiness of our patients, clients, and team members.

Marty Becker, DVM, writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free, or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News

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