Life in the Time of COVID-19
6 ways to ensure social distancing isn't social isolation.
Posted April 16, 2020
“What magic does touch create
that we crave it so. That babies
do not thrive without it. That
the nurse who cuts tough nails
and sands calluses on the elderly
tells me sometimes men weep
as she rubs lotion on their feet.” —Marge Piercy
It’s timely to consider the importance of touch as the world is engulfed in an unimaginable pandemic, one where human connection is all but severed and where the most casual contact equates to potential contagion, disease, and even death.
At this moment, the world is in virtual lockdown. Nearly every state in the U.S. has restricted movement and to some degree prohibited casual physical contact. Every continent on earth has introduced some form of community distancing to prevent the spread of a deadly virus.
Beaches are closed. Offices stand empty. Handshakes are a thing of the past. Hugs, even among family members, are frowned upon should a silent carrier spread the coronavirus to loved ones. Even the inadvertent bumping of hands while reaching for yogurt in a grocery store is met with trepidation.
Touch, a vital and elemental aspect of life, has become collateral damage in the global war on COVID-19. Human touch, our foundational emotional language that conveys trust, understanding, and warmth, is now unavailable to people anywhere.
Touch is the most primal of sensory experiences. At 26 weeks, fetuses respond to vibrations in utero. Touch enables newborns to regulate body temperature, and it is well known that a mother’s rapid response to a newborn’s cry through nursing and cuddling will lead to bonding, security, and lifelong social adaptation. (1)
A study of babies born to crack-addicted mothers found that those who are raised in an environment of affection fare better those babies who are raised in homes with an absence of touch and nurture, regardless of their mother’s addiction. The presence of connection and touch is transformative.
Research has long shown that physical touch correlates with decreased violence, a stronger immune system and lowered incidence of disease. Touch even correlates to more victories on the basketball court! It is known that skin touching skin will activate the brain’s cortex and release oxytocin, a neurological response that results in improved well-being. (3)
Incidentally, it’s not only humans who instinctively require touch. Nearly all species use a form of touch to relieve stress in social environments. For instance, primates satisfy this need through grooming by routinely picking at each other’s fur throughout the day. Some members of the baboon family groom as much as 17 percent of their waking day. (2)
So, what can we do in this era that requires social distancing, where touch is prohibited and where we have been presented with a brand-spanking-new normal?
How do we best function at this time of drive-by grocery pickups and when families gather over holiday dinners and pass the iPad rather than the potatoes? What are those who are sequestered alone with Netflix in one-bedroom apartments to do? How do we ensure that social distancing does not result in loneliness and social isolation?
Nothing quite compensates for the pleasure derived from a boisterous dinner party or from watching a sporting event with a room full of friends. Yet there are steps we can take to help ameliorate the loneliness and lack of connection resulting from social distancing. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Pet a pet. Social support can be found in a friend with fur and four legs. Social psychologists report that pets mitigate loneliness. They have determined that the bond between owner and pet is chemical as well as emotional. In fact, oxytocin, known as the happy hormone, is released when we spend time with four-legged friends. If you don’t have a pet, can you borrow one from a friend or neighbor for an afternoon?
2. Reach out virtually. Check in on friends and acquaintances via phone, text, and email to ask how they’re coping. This kindness will be especially valued by those who live alone. A hand that metaphorically reaches across the abyss can be as welcome as a hug. This is the perfect time to resurrect the age-old tradition of letter writing. Take some time to write to your children, your friends, and those who have made a difference in your life. In this period of uncertainty, there is no greater comfort than to know that you have shared your gratitude and love with others. Send a text to someone you know who is isolated. Call a neighbor who is housebound to ask if you can drop groceries on the porch or run an errand at the pharmacy.
3. Celebrate access to social media and technology. Social media has a dark side for sure. It can lead to bullying and negative behavior. But this is a time when it should be celebrated for the positive value it can have as we live through a plague and are physically separated from others. Social media, if used correctly, can offer a healthy alternative to meeting in person. Follow Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok to see how others are doing. Post poems and inspirational images and messages. There are digital tools available to all of us that allow us to creatively gather—albeit appropriately distanced—to celebrate friendship. Consider a Zoom cocktail party, Zoom dinners, or a walk with a friend while on FaceTime. There are many ways to reinvent traditional ways of meeting in order to enjoy the company of friends and family.
4. Smile. Smiles matter and are more meaningful than handshakes They create social bonds and are contagious. Does a smile work at a time when we are mostly shrouded by face masks? Yes. A real smile results in the engaging of the extraocular muscles around the eye sockets. So even while wearing a mask, your smile will create a cascade of positive feedback and generate endorphins both in you and in the recipients of your smile. So, smile as much as possible and whenever you can make eye contact that conveys, “I understand these are difficult days, and we are in this together.”
5. Do good deeds. There is an increasing requirement throughout the world to wear masks when outside the home. This need is compounded by the difficulty of health care workers and others to obtain this vital form of PPE. Help out by sewing masks in your free time and donating them. Most communities have established networks where masks can be donated to hospitals and others in need. Many sewing supply stores have taken the lead by donating fabric and sending these home-sewn masks to local organizations, hospitals, and health care systems.
The most vulnerable members of our society are greatly in need of food during this period of COVID-19. Help your neighbors by donating food or a check to a local food bank. A quick Google search will identify a list of organizations that are caring for and feeding those families who are struggling.
6. Sing from your balcony. Clap from your porch. All over the world communities have introduced opportunities where we can stand together at a designated time to applaud those doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and others who are on the front lines of COVID-19. From Seattle to Rome and New York, people are standing on stoops, balconies, and porches to salute and celebrate the selfless acts of others. Together through singing, clapping and banging of pans, joy and gratitude are overtaking anxiety. Join in!
We may not currently be able to reach out and touch as once before, but we must do what we can to forge new pathways of connection. We can embrace our shared concerns and take care of others through loving kindness as well as our own responsible actions. In this moment, we can do our best to live with compassion, kindness, and creativity. We can let others know they are not alone.
As Marge Piercy noted in her poem referenced above, “We long for the familiar, the open palm of love, its tender fingers.” There are things we can do to satisfy this longing.
1. Dale M. Stack, Ph.D, and Amelie D. L. Jean https://healthfully.com/186495-importance-of-human-touch.html