As a widow for more than 25 years with no family nearby, I’m used to being by myself. But living alone in the time of COVID-19 and the necessary social distancing is a whole different definition of alone.
Despite knowing that the lack of human touch can affect both physical and mental health, I thought I was doing well and “hanging in there.”
At least I thought I wasn’t really affected until tears were suddenly streaming down my face while I was shopping in Walmart last Sunday.
The cause of those tears was a spontaneous hug from a blue-eyed 3-year-old boy. As he and his family walked by, the little boy in the blue shirt sneezed. When I said “God Bless you” though my mask, he ran straight to me over and hugged my leg. That simple gesture and actual physical touch made me burst into tears. After a few more unsolicited hugs from that precious child before we all continued shopping, left me with tears streaming down my face.
The lack of human touch — no hugs, pats on the back, a hand on a shoulder or even a high-five — can seriously impact a person’s mental and physical health according to many studies. The recent starvation of touch due to social distancing is taking a toil, according to Asim Shah, MD, professor and executive vice chair of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in a May 15, 2020 article about touch starvation on Texas Medical Center’s website, tmc.edu/news/2020/05/touch-starvation.
“Human beings are wired to touch and be touched. When a child is born, that is how they bond with their mother — though touch,” Shah said, adding that the lack of touch “is like someone starved for food.”
Stress, anxiety, and depression can result, all of which can exasperate serious physical ailments, according to the article. Post-traumatic stress disorder can be a result of an extended period of deprivation of positive human touch, Shah said. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in a 2014 study cited hugging as helpful in staving off infections.
But I thought I was doing all right. After all, it was only a few months.
Since March, what I used to think of as solitary life — happily interrupted by visits with friends, helping out with the local theater groups and other community events and annual trips to the east coast to see family and old friends in person — has become a monastic life.
I started to envy those who were socially distancing with family members or friends. The idea of having human contact or even a face-to-face trivial conversation of “what do you want for dinner?” or “why did you leave your socks on the floor?” seemed an unattainable delight. And even thinking about not being able to hug or even to be patted on the back by another human being made me desolate.
What helped relieve the stress a bit was when I started video meetings with my brothers and their families. It turns out that I was on to something.
Contact by video, Shah said, “is about 80 percent as effective as in-person contact.” Pets are also helpful in relieving stress.
What I do know, is that I still feel stress-relieving effects of those little arms hugging my knee. For those social distancing alone, it would be good to video conference with friends and family members.
For those distancing with others? Just hug them.
KW Hillis lives in Lawton.