I’ve been thinking a lot about touch these past few weeks. I have a couple of clients who have brought touch-related issues and I have contact with a young woman who feels very strongly that her need to be hugged is not being met, largely because her disability and wheelchair inhibit others. Both have piqued my curiosity – and we all know if I am nothing else, I am curious. It’s a good job I am not a cat!

I started my thought process hooked on how hard it is to date these days. Perhaps I should start writing a book – ‘Dating in the Covid Years’, with lots of philosophy, sociology, psychology and personal testimony from all manner of people, and exploring whether porn viewing has gone up these past months. I’m also wondering about Tinder use, virtual sex with actual strangers and … well this leads on to all manner of other curiosities, including the need to touch and be touched by another person. What fun I could have! However, given that I can’t manage to write a journal each evening(this my annual New Year Resolution), I think the chances of me finishing a book is pretty slim, so I will stick to my occasional blogs.

Anyway, back to touch. 

Touch is a human need. From before we are born we know touch. Research has shown so many interesting things about touch which is fundamental to human thriving, bonding, development of co-operative relationships, communication, trust, relaxation, and both physical and emotional health. Those that are brought up by ‘cuddlesome’ parents are likley to be happily huggy themselves as adults.

Dacher Keltner a Social Psychologist from the States has studied touch a LOT. He talks about touch being our primary language of compassion and the more I think about it, the more I agree. Yes we can convey many emotions through touch (not all positive)but nurturing, soothing hurt, rubbing a bumped head, demonstrating affection, comforting, gathering in a vulnerable other, holding the hand of a dying relative, are all so fundamental to the human condition. And it is not only the ‘other’ person who benefits. Giving comforting touch is good for you too.

The link I want to make here is about the lack of touch we are experiencing during the whole Covid experience. I live in France. The French are not big huggers but they do love to kiss on both cheeks…it is a massive cultural part of life in France. You say hello, you kiss, you say goodbye, you kiss, there is an etiquette, social rules – much like the now rather old-fashioned handshake in the UK. Anyway, kiss, shake or hug, they have all been dropped since Feb 2020 unless you have a live-in partner/kids/friend of course. You lucky folks can carry on as before within the same household.

But what if you live alone? How do you get yourself touched and experience the physical and emotional benefits previously described? Loads of people seem to have bought puppies or adopted kittens…stroking an animal helps for sure – we have known that for a long time but it isn’t the whole deal, and while Zoom connections are a great way of temporarily alleviating loneliness, no one can reach through the screen and hold your hand while you chat.

My next neural spark was directed at those who live alone and are looking for love. How do you date when there is nowhere to go, you have to wear a mask, stay 1 metre apart and can’t touch each other? You can’t join anything – a choir or night class or a sports club because they are not able to meet either, so your chances of actually ‘clicking’ with someone with similar interests is basically limited to those you work with, that is, if you can actually go to work. Gosh I feel the need to compassionately touch anyone in that lonely old situation!

Touch deprivation (or Skin Hunger) is real. Deprivation of touch can impact self-esteem, moods, anxiety, sense of acceptance and belonging. Isolation and loneliness are dangerous. As the pandemic continues, and it will for a while yet, we certainly need to find new approaches to touch, in order to fulfil the very real human need for warmth, intimacy and affection. Self-massage may become a thing – perhaps I should start a youtube channel? I could call it ‘Touch yourself better’..hummmm perhaps not.. very easily misinterpreted! Suggestions welcome! 

One last thing which, like a puppy, is for always, not just for Covid. 

What of those who are often left out from the hug/shake/kiss rituals? Specifically what of those who use a wheelchair? I had a really enlightening conversation with a friend who has Cerebral Palsy recently. Apart from his nearest and dearest, he tells me he is rarely included in the usual greetings..new people just nod an awkward smile in his direction. Hugs for him are super rare. This is endorsed by my numerous other friends who use a wheelchair. There are loads of potential reasons for contact avoidance which I am not going to go into them here, but if you do meet someone who uses a wheelchair, please try not to let the equipment or the disability or your fears get in the way of what would be a natural greeting for anyone else. Try not to exclude people who are just a bit different (can you imagine how that feels?) and if you feel awkward and unsure, just ask them…! 

I was reading that there are those who believe we should never reintroduce hand shaking or cheek kissing or the big fat bear hug ever again, replacing all that with a waved greeting from a metre’s distance. Now I am not advocating that we throw our masks to the four winds and hug with abandon, not yet anyway, but I do hope that once Covid risk is low and vaccination rates are high, we can return to natural human contact. I do believe the benefits will one day outweigh the risk. I’m even fantasising about opening a booth in the market square offering ‘Free Hugs’ where lonely, isolated, none pervy, touch hungry people of any gender, culture, ability or religion will be welcome (as long as you are sober and reasonably clean).

Of course, it will likely only serve to endorse the idea that the Brits are nuts…but you never know, my simple hug might raise a smile, improve someone’s day, change a life.

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