The novel coronavirus has changed nearly every aspect of life in Canada, making even trips to the grocery store a rare and stressful ordeal.
For many, this is the first time they’ve been apart from other people for a prolonged period of time — and the negative side effects are plenty. In fact, a recent Ipsos poll found that 54 per cent of Canadians feel lonely and isolated due to the pandemic.
Some people have started to talk about being “touch deprived,” or starved for human touch. According to experts, that’s because humans actually need human touch to survive.
“We’re social animals, we do need (human touch),” said Christine Korol, a registered psychologist at the Vancouver Anxiety Centre.
“In modern, pre-pandemic times, one way to get around (touch deprivation) is to go for a massage or get your hair done … but we can’t do that right now.”
Now, without those ways to fill the gaps, millions of Canadians are struggling with an insatiable craving for human touch — one that can cause severe mental health issues.
“From an early age, we crave physical contact from our parents or caretakers. In fact, physical touch is one of the first ways we learn to communicate our needs,” said Joshua Peters, a registered psychotherapist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships
“This creates our essential understanding of touch as providing both safety and comfort.”
People who experience a lack of touch may start to exhibit some symptoms of depression, according to Peters.
“Feelings of hopelessness, stress, anger and low motivation” are all common.
“They may also struggle to feel intimately connected in relationships or feel like ‘something is missing,'” Peters said. “A lack of physical touch might also cause individuals to excessively worry about their physical appearance or experience their body as ‘not feeling real.'”
Touch deprivation in the disabled community
This may be the first time you’re hearing about touch deprivation, but it’s not a new term. It’s a pervasive problem for those living with depression, anxiety and disability.
“It comes up in disability discourse quite a lot because we’re so often touched only by our caregivers,” said Andrew Gurza, a disability awareness consultant based in Toronto.
Whether it’s a primary care doctor, a physical therapist or a some other care worker, much of the touch a disabled person receives is through gloves or other barriers.
Gurza has experienced this firsthand.
“You’re never really touched in a way that is desired, you’re only touched out of necessity,” he said.
Gurza says this is an upsetting reality for people with disability, and it’s in part due to the widespread myth that a person with disability doesn’t have the desire to be touched.
“The idea that somebody with disability wouldn’t want to be touched or be intimate with somebody (else) is a total myth,” Gurza said.
In Gurza’s view, the pandemic is a unique opportunity for people without disability to learn from and gain a deeper understanding of the disability community.
“I think we have to go to disabled people right now and ask them about their experiences with this,” he said. “We need to be asking disabled people what they do when they can’t have touch.”
Gurza fears that once the pandemic comes to an end, “everyone’s going to forget about us.”
“My hope is that things will change and … that people understand that skin hunger is a real thing for disabled people,” Gurza said.
“Even after the pandemic, a lot of disabled people will still be experiencing skin hunger and desire, and my hope is that we can have some empathy towards them going forward.”
Finding human touch during the pandemic
As the coronavirus outbreak rages on, Peters recommends that people look for opportunities to “connect to your more sensual side.”
“Try giving yourself a massage using your hands, lotions or massage oils,” he said. “Try to focus on the sensation of being touched and the use of fabrics or pleasurable objects can heighten this experience.”
Though it can feel silly, Peters says hugging yourself can also be an enjoyable way to mimic touch.
“Try hugging a comfortable object like a pillow or even a stuffed animal,” he said. “There’s a reason why young children often hug their stuffed animals — it feels good!”
Weighted blankets, wrapping yourself tightly in a blanket or taking a warm bath can also provide some relief from touch deprivation.
If it’s feasible for you, both Korol and Peters recommend adopting a cat or dog as an excellent alternative to human interaction.
“I’ve been chatting with a lot of people who have been snapping up pets at the shelter because they’re good company, and you do get some of that tactile sensory input that you need to feel normal,” Korol said.
“Having a pet can help a lot.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available.
In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868) also offer ways of getting help if you or someone you know may be suffering from mental health issues.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
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