Women elbow bumping in lockdown

Craving physical contact? An expert has this advice for anyone feeling frustrated

A new Radio 4 study called The Touch Test has revealed just how much humans rely on physical touch for wellbeing. An expert explains to Stylist the science behind why and gives helpful tips on how to feel more connected during the pandemic.      

It’s human instinct to reach out and touch. Whether bear-hugging a family member you haven’t seen in a while, or excitedly grabbing a friend’s arm when they share big news, we so often touch people without really thinking about it. Even those who wouldn’t describe themselves as tactile usually accept a handshake as a normal part of daily life.

But physical touch is something that most of us have been deprived of during the pandemic, especially with many people living on their own and not touching another human for over 10 weeks in lockdown. Over the last couple of months or so, we’ve been able to see more people as long as we stay at a safe distance. And people have formed support bubbles to help get through these turbulent times. But the fact remains that in most cases: we can look, but we still cannot touch.

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Charlotte, who lives on her own in Scotland, shares this frustration: “I find myself welling up when people hug on TV, wishing that I too could feel the warmth of somebody else, catching a whiff of their perfume or aftershave as they break away. I just really can’t wait for a cuddle. While spending time with people I love (from a distance) is nice, I do worry that it will only make the lack of human contact more pronounced – it’s the comfort of touch that I crave.”

Alyss had been isolating with her boyfriend until he suddenly had to move back home, and says she’s been struggling with physical distance, too: “While I can meet up with him and my friends now, not being able to physically touch them is really playing on my mind. There’s something so comforting about meeting up with a pal and going in for a big hug. I know we’re so lucky to be able to even see people but saying goodbye to my loved ones and not being able to give them a big squeeze feels off-kilter – like we can’t really connect.”

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New research conducted by Radio 4 helps to understand Alyss and Charlotte’s feelings. 

According to the results of The Touch Test, which primarily took place before the UK was even in lockdown, most people (72%) viewed interpersonal touch positively, and nearly half of typical adults (43%) felt that society does not enable us to touch enough. 

Of the 40,000 people who took part in the study, 79% of people said they liked being touched by a friend and 61% said a hug from a partner before sleep had a positive effect on their sleep. In fact, the three most common words used to describe touch were: “comforting”, “warm” and “love”. 

It’s little wonder, then, that the pandemic has given human touch a new resonance. 

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Michelle Scott, a psychotherapist from The Recovery Centre, confirms just how important human touch is for emotional and physical development and continued wellbeing.

“Researchers have shown that children who have not had sufficient caring physical attention are at higher risk of behavioural, emotional and social issues as they grow up,” she tells Stylist. “As adults the lack of touch can have similar effects. Caring touch stimulates the vagus nerve which in turn sends signals from our brain to our body telling our heart rate and blood pressure to lower and calming the activity of the stress hormone cortisol.

“Caring touch also causes us to produce oxytocin, which makes us feel safe, bonded, empathetic and loving. Our earliest experiences of this will be as a baby being held and fed by our caregivers. We don’t have a baseline of oxytocin in our systems, it needs to be stimulated regularly for us to feel its benefits. We may find ourselves craving and overdoing food, smoking or alcohol since these substances can give us a boost of oxytocin and other feel-good hormones.”

Many of us are struggling with feelings of isolation during the UK lockdown.

Scott explains that seeing a friend from a distance or making a virtual call can help calm us, give us a boost of connection and of oxytocin. This is because seeing each others’ faces and making eye contact as well as sharing our experiences is a great antidote to any fears we currently have. 

However, she adds: “In these stressful times we need more anxiety relief than we usually do and so we may find ourselves craving the physical touch that we instinctively know will help us. Also, for most of us, virtual or distanced contact is not usual and we may find that the strangeness takes some getting used to which may make it harder for us to relax and soak up the benefits.”

Ultimately, though, she recommends we use whatever means we can to stay safely in touch with our loved ones.

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Michelle Scott’s tips on how to feel physically connected without actually touching anyone

  • Self-massage can give us a good dose of calming and loving feelings through the vagus nerve and oxytocin stimulation. Rubbing your hands, feet or temples can really help. 
  • Brushing your hair can feel really caring and have a similar effect to massage. 
  • Warmth helps us to feel comforted so wrapping yourself up in a blanket can be a lovely way to give yourself a hug. 
  • Tapping on acupressure points is a great technique to learn or simply humming along to your favourite tune is good as the vibrations stimulate the vagus nerve. 
  • Orgasm is a wonderful way to reduce stress and produce oxytocin. 
  • Making sure you have a good sleep routine which includes no screen time and dimming the lights for half an hour before bed can help to boost our melatonin which in turn helps us produce oxytocin.
  • Improve your sense of connectedness through being in nature even if it is just taking a moment to feel the sun on our face or listen to the birds singing.
  • Kindness meditations, yoga, dancing and a hot bath, making yourself a really nice meal and mindfully enjoying it. 
  • Giving and helping others and remembering times we have enjoyed feeling close to our loved ones all promote our social engagement systems and our sense of safe connectedness. 

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