Losing Touch

School Nutrition's January 2021 issue focuses on various self-care strategies as we all struggle to deal with relentless stress, burnout and grief caused by the coronavirus pandemic. For many, 10 months of social distancing has meant a particularly profound loss: physical contact.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, we have lost more than lives—we have lost the opportunity to engage in important human coping mechanisms like touching and hugging. The physical distancing required to prevent the spread of the virus leaves us without some of the most crucial tools available to us when seeking comfort and solace. Even mask-wearing prevents us from fully showing empathy or sympathy through our facial expressions—an important form of human communication and connection.

There is also a grief associated with the loss of our ability to freely touch and hug other human beings. “It is normal to struggle with the loss of touch,” says Devita Streva, a licensed social worker and a psychotherapist interviewed for WebMd. “Touch is a legitimate physical and emotional need. It’s part of the human experience, and losing that and not knowing when you will get it back is hard.”

There is an abundance of research that shows how physical expressions of affection—both given and received—have real and measurable health and wellness impacts on our physical and mental health. A variety of touches, from hugs to handshakes, a pat on the arm, back or head, kisses on the cheek, or hand-holding calms the nervous system, activates positive hormones and reduces the stress hormone, lessens pain, lowers blood pressure and improves mood. 

For those living alone, or in households with frontline workers who regularly risk virus exposure, the lack of touch can be especially challenging. It may seem a poor substitute, but staying connected with friends and family via other means—phone calls, video conferencing, letter-writing, emails, texts and social media posts—is more important than ever.

There are some other ways to alleviate touch deprivation. Surround yourself with tactile comforts when possible: cozy pajamas, a soft blanket or a body pillow, for example. Engage your other senses for comfort, as well: light scented candles, enjoy favorite foods, listen to music or podcasts, take in images that please you in whatever form that takes—movies, books, the internet, or a walk outdoors. Be sure to review the ideas and products highlighted in “16 Research-Based Ways to Practice Self-Care” and “7 Products to Soothe the Soul” in the January issue. If you are desperate for the real thing, consider such inventive solutions as the plastic curtain-style Hug Glove, a viral sensation you can find on Google.

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