Physical touch and human connection in the time of COVID-19

Survey found that 60% of people are “touch deprived”

“Cuddling up at the end of the day, feeling that presence of someone being close to you really helps to wind down,” said Emily Butterworth, a junior at Gordon College studying International Affairs who can’t imagine a life without physical touch.

After months of being cooped up in their homes, students continue to struggle to find ways to connect with their friends and loved ones in a time when COVID protocols require them to stay six feet apart.

With her primary love language being physical touch, Butterworth mentioned how she missed hugging her friends. However, she’s had the opportunity to spend more quality time with family and share those hugs with them.

“I go to school in the East Coast and so we returned to college in the Fall,” she said. “Not being able to hug my friends after that long period of not seeing them was really sad. I definitely do crave and missed it a lot, but it’s been nice talking and being able to do it with my family.”

While some individuals crave physical touch and human connection, others prefer physical distance. Joliana Frausto, a USC Annenberg graduate student pursuing a Master’s in Digital Social Media opened up about her personal preference. “I have always been a bit of a germaphobe,” she said. “I have never felt that physical touch is necessary for me to function as a person. It’s definitely not my love language.”

From a young age, Frausto was uncomfortable showing affection through hugs but went along with it when someone offered her one. “When my aunts would come up to hug me, I just desperately did not want to, but I would anyway,” she said. “I’m not gonna make someone uncomfortable and be like I don’t want to hug you.”

Hugging might help some people de-stress, but for Frausto, it makes her anxious. “When people want to hug me. I feel like there is a little panic in my head,” Frausto said. “I do have social anxiety, so I feel like that is something that may play a role in why I don’t like hugging.”

Dr. Tiffany Field, Ph.D. Director of the Touch Research Institute in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine emphasized that an action as simple as hugging reduces stress hormones.

Dr. Field and her colleagues conducted a survey in April 2020 that found that 60% of people are “touch-deprived,” and exercise was the most effective buffer. The survey also showed that these activities helped: spirituality, meditation, creative projects, hobbies, and almost everyone, reported housekeeping and cooking.

“It’s good to have the emotional connection that goes with intimate touch, but it’s not absolutely critical for health the way moving the skin is, whether that is exercise or brushing yourself in the shower,” Dr. Field said.

Almost all exercise and physical activities, like back rubs, hugs, or even washing your hands are ways to “move the skin.” The movement helps stimulate the pressure receptors under the skin which flows down the nervous system and reduces stress hormones, Dr. Field said.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, individuals are not getting the touch they need socially, but also lacking intimate touch, according to Dr. Field. Butterworth.

“I think it is definitely going to feel different for a while,” Butterworth said. “But I’m hoping to someday return to normal and be close physically with my friends and family.”