6 Ways to Cope with Touch Deprivation

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CredibleMind Ambassador Blog by Kelsey Laird, PhD | View Original Blog

You may have heard that physical touch can benefit both physical and emotional wellbeing.1 The most extensive research in humans to date has been conducted with premature infants, where “kangaroo care” (skin-to-skin contact between parent and newborn) has been shown to improve weight gain, reduce risk of infection, and increase survival.2,3 Similarly, research with adults suggests that touch can stimulate the release of endorphins and oxytocin and dampen the neural stress response.4

Of course, people vary in the types of activities that make them feel connection, and some individuals will be more prone to feeling “touch deprived” during quarantine than others. If you tend to connect primarily through written or spoken language, then daily texting and phone calls with loved ones may be enough to sustain you. But if what makes you feel most connected to friends and family is physical touch and presence, you may find sheltering in place solo especially challenging.

So what do we do? Here are some activities with potential to produce some of the same physiological effects of touch when a physical hug is not an option.

  1. Cultivate Awe. Awe is that feeling of wonder that we get in the presence of something vast that diminishes our sense of self and enhances feelings of connection to a universal group. Research suggests that positive experiences of awe may reduce inflammation and dampen the stress response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.5 Awe may also facilitate a cascade of other positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, curiosity, creativity, and generosity.6 Although nature and other people are the most common sources of awe,6 it is possible to cultivate awe even in the confines of your own home. Ideas include:

2. Practice Mindfulness Meditation. Mindfulness practice has been shown to decrease the stress response and improve immune function.7 Try a mindfulness exercise focusing on the breath, the body, or the senses.

3. Practice Compassion. As I wrote last month, practicing compassion (in the form of either meditation or altruistic behavior) and even observing compassion in others can benefit mental and physical health. One study found that those who volunteered regularly were 40% less likely to have high blood pressure years later compared to non-volunteers.8 If you don’t have the time or resources to volunteer, try a small random act of kindness or a loving-kindness meditation.

4. Move or Sing in Synchrony. Research suggests that moving, dancing, or making music together releases endorphins and oxytocin, thereby increasing feelings of connectedness.9,10 Try a virtual yoga class or “ecstatic dance”!

5. Get Some Exercise. Physical activity prompts the release of endorphins and dopamine, reduces stress, and improves mood. If it’s possible, try going for a walk in nature, since research suggests that exercising in nature produces even greater restoration from stress compared to urban settings.11,12

6. Other methods of increasing oxytocin include petting an animal, soaking in a hot bath, and expressing affection for loved ones through words or gifts.13

These are challenging times, and it is totally natural to feel sad, isolated, anxious or depleted. Practice kindness towards yourself. If you haven’t already tried some of Dr. Kristen Neff’s self-compassion exercises, this could be a good time to start! And if you need additional support, please feel free to get in touch with me directly.

[1] Keltner, D. (2010, Sept 29). Hands On Research: The Science of Touch. Greater Good Science Center. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hands_on_research

[2] Evidence-Based Living. (2014, May 21). The evidence on kangaroo care. Cornell University. Retrieved from http://evidencebasedliving.human.cornell.edu/2014/05/21/the-evidence-on-kangaroo-care/

[3] Conde‐Agudelo, A. & Díaz‐Rossello, J. L. (2011). Kangaroo mother care to reduce morbidity and mortality in low birthweight infants. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (3). doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD002771.pub4

[4] Coan, J., Schaefer, H. & Davidson, R. (2006). Lending a Hand: Social Regulation of the Neural Response to Threat. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1032–1039. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/40064503

[5] Allen, S. (2018). The Science of Awe. Greater Good Science Center. Retrieved from https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Awe_FINAL.pdf?_ga=2.78185812.1141171560.1587099796-411383896.1582341506

[6] Greater Good Magazine. (2020). Why Practice It? Greater Good Science Center. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/awe/definition#why-practice-awe

[7] Creswell, J. D. & Lindsay, E. K. (2014). How Does Mindfulness Training Affect Health? A Mindfulness Stress Buffering Account. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(6), 401–407. doi: 10.1177/0963721414547415

[8] Sneed, R.S. & Cohen, S. (2013). A prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adults. Psychology of Aging, 28(2), 578–586. doi: 10.1037/a0032718

[9] Launay, J., Tarr, B., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2016). Synchrony as an Adaptive Mechanism for Large‐Scale Human Social Bonding. Ethology, 122(10). doi: 10.1111/eth.12528

[10] Dunbar, R. I., Kaskatis, K., MacDonald, I., & Barra V. (2012). Performance of music elevates pain threshold and positive affect: implications for the evolutionary function of music. Evolutionary Psychology, 10(4), 688–702. doi: 10.1177/147470491201000403

[11] (2020). 11 Scientific Reasons Why Being in Nature is Relaxing. Mental Floss. Retrieved from https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/60632/11-scientific-reasons-why-being-nature-relaxing

[12] Gidlow, C. J., Jones, M. V., Hurst, G. Masterson, D., Clark-Carter, D. Tarvainen, M. P.,…Nieuwenhuijsen, M. (2016). Where to put your best foot forward: Psycho-physiological responses to walking in natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 45, 22–29. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2015.11.003

[13] Zak, P. J. (2013, Nov 7). The Top 10 Ways to Boost Good Feelings. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-moral-molecule/201311/the-top-10-ways-boost-good-feelings

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