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The craving for physical touch during a pandemic

February 25, 2021

When was the last time you were able to run into your friend’s arms and give them a big hug? Last time you were able to kiss your partner? Embrace your Grandma? For the safety of the people around you, I am hoping you did not answer recently. 

For about a year now, we have been told to stay six feet apart from one another. For those that abide by these guidelines, it has been difficult. People are very tactile—a big way we share love is through physical touch. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, found in a survey conducted during the first COVID-19 shutdowns that 68 percent of participants felt like they were touch deprived, and within a month the symptoms they were experiencing increased by 50 percent.  

Over winter break I went to visit my boyfriend. I was not able to get a test before I went because all the testing facilities near me were completely booked, so I drove five hours just to stare at him from six feet apart, masks on. His father is immunocompromised, so with the rise in cases around the holiday season we were taking extra precautions. Even though we weren’t able to snuggle up and kiss, we tried our best to make it seem normal, but it wasn’t. It was awkward. 

My partner is someone I never feel uncomfortable around. I can act like a complete idiot around him and not feel fazed. However, the physical distance between us seemed like it caused a psychological divide as well. I noticed we kept on interrupting each other after trying to fill spouts of silence; similar to what you experience when first meeting someone and trying to make small talk. 

This injection of awkwardness into a conversation was not a one-time occurrence. The first time I noticed this physical space getting in the way of emotional connection was when I saw my best friend over the summer. 

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My first instinct when I saw her was to wrap my arms around her little 5’ 2” body and squeeze as tight as I could. I caught myself before I did that; I practically hit an invisible barrier the moment I remembered I couldn’t get any closer than I already was. Instead, I violently flapped my hand around in excitement, making something that barely resembled a wave. 

Our typical hangouts pre-pandemic would consist of us climbing all over each other trying our best to annoy one another and laughing until our lungs hurt. Instead, our time together was spent on two separate picnic blankets in her backyard, trying to catch each other up on our lives, but not having enough content to have a full conversation. With six feet of grass between us, it felt like our relationship was off. 

Not being able to touch my friend brought me down in a surprising way. After leaving her, I felt an emptiness. That feeling is there every time I wave goodbye, instead of hugging now. 

This lack of physical touch made me realize how important it is to share space with the people you love. How much a handhold, a knee brush, a squeeze of the shoulder means to your connection with someone.

Touch starvation increases stress, depression and anxiety, triggering a cascade of negative physiological effects. The body releases the hormone cortisol as a response to stress, activating the body’s “flight-or-fight” response,” said the Texas Medical Center

Sure, people have tried to recreate the sensation of physical touch, but that new elbow-tap greeting is just downright uncomfortable, and my distaste for it has only increased throughout the pandemic. 

Would have it been easier to just stay home and Facetime? Absolutely. But after only having physical contact with my parents for months, the idea of being within the vicinity of someone else is enticing. 

My most recent experience with being touch deprived was two weeks ago, when my partner was dragged to the Paramount building, along with his other suitemates, after one of them tested positive for COVID-19. 

I still had people around me. I had my two suitemates to sit next to and grab my arm when something funny was said. However, I still found myself walking into my suitemate’s room at midnight asking for a hug because I just needed one.

While physical touch is not always sexual, I would be lying if I said that was not a factor when it comes to a romantic relationship. Missing that aspect for days, weeks, or months leaves you with a physical craving more identifiable than the psychological one. There has been an increase in people watching porn online, and even a threefold increase in vibrator sales since the lockdowns began worldwide.   

Stripping away physical touch in romantic love, friend love, or sexual love impacts your mental health. To the people who are following CDC guidelines, we are all touch-deprived. If you want some ways you can try to combat this touch starvation, touch yourself. Not exactly in the way that sounds, but more literally. Give yourself a hug, a massage, or squeeze your arms. It is in your hands to give yourself the physical contact others can not right now. 

Trevor Roberts, a psychotherapist from Bournemouth, England, suggests “seeking out different textures—caressing and concentrating on the feeling of silky, furry, smooth and even rough surfaces,” can help with touch deprivation by exposing your senses to new experiences that your body is lacking.

This longing for physical affection has proven itself difficult, but hopefully someday soon we will be able to run into each other’s arms like they do at the end of every sappy romantic comedy.

This story was published in The Berkeley Beacon Magazine’s February 26, 2021 issue. 

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Sabine Waldeck, Columnist

Sabine Waldeck is a journalism major and marketing minor at Emerson College. She currently works at The Berkeley Beacon as an opinion writer. She is a journalist passionate about opinion and magazine writing. A driving factor of her love for journalism is that she can always report on the never-ending ongoings of the world. In the past she had an internship at Essential Homme magazine, writing 60 articles for them. Overall, Sabine has been published...

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