We are currently facing two pandemics that came along hand-in-hand: COVID-19 and the epidemic of loneliness and disconnection. As the worldwide death toll surpasses one million (nytimes.com 28/9) international travel has come to a standstill. Several countries around the world have enacted lockdowns of varying severity. Many adults who live alone went from seeing people every day to going weeks without talking to another person.
For the elderly, this isolation and loneliness are even more extreme, as many struggle to use technological tools to keep in contact with family and friends. While young adults used video calls and social media to stay in touch, many older adults went days without conversation or eye contact. This loneliness, in addition to anxiety about health and the state of the world plunged many into depression.
The majority of my clients in Asia, Europe and North America is disconnected from family and friends. Some of them and myself had to travel for sad and mournful occasions.
Self-regulation vs. interpersonal regulation
Individual ways we can take to calm ourselves: Yoga, breathing techniques, and grounding exercises can all be practiced during isolation. However, co-regulation (or interpersonal regulation) is also essential for all human beings – especially for young children with developing brains, who do not yet have self-regulation capacity. As all social beings we are wired for connection.
When we see someone act, our mirror neurons fire as though we were the actor. When we feel unsafe, a reassuring smile and the calming voice of a loved one can help calm our body down. Touch is a core aspect of this co-regulation process. One study found that holding hands with a loved one decreased the amount of pain a woman felt while receiving an electrical shock.
The truth is, we just can’t separate our mental health from the physical. Stress and loneliness affect our physical body directly. Studies show that loneliness can increase the likelihood of various diseases, from heart disease to Alzheimer’s. Hugging is a form of touch that helps us feel connected to others. When we hug, we feel loved, seen, safe, soothed and secure.
Today, the main wrench of the pandemic is: Just when we need human connection the most, we are told to socially distance.
Of course, we want to keep our loved ones safe and avoid unnecessary risks. And yet, the benefits of touch and human connection are more important than ever. Is there a way we can balance these two contrasting positions?
Approaching hugging rules scientifically
- First, use common sense to determine when a hug or touch is actually needed. Now is not the time for networking and social niceties. If you meet someone new, hugs and kisses probably aren’t essential. Supporting a friend who is going through a hard time might be a different situation.
- Wear a mask. The mask will be an extra layer of protection against respiratory droplets that you breathe out. In doing so, it will help protect your hugging partner.
- Make sure you’re crossing over – both on their left or both on their right shoulder side (think Minuet not Tango). That way, you’re not breathing in each other’s exhaled air.
- Avoid touching each other’s faces while you hug.
- Don’t talk while you are hugging. Keep the conversation to before and after the hug.
- If possible, hold your breath during the hug.
- Keep your hug brief. You can have an extremely effective hug in ten seconds. Hold each other tight, relax, and then let go.
- Let children hug you at their level, rather than coming down to their height. That way, their faces should be at your knee, waist, or possibly chest level, making it less likely to spread germs in the air.
- Don’t hug while either of you is crying, or if you have a cough or runny nose.
- Step away after the hug, and continue your conversation when you are standing several feet apart.
- Wash your hands after hugging, and avoid touching your face.
When Hugging Is Not An Option
There are other ways to calm your nervous system and get similar benefits that touch provides. If you have a pet, you can co-regulate with them. A study on the effects of human-animal relationships in children found that “touch, proximity, and mind-body interaction with animals have been found to contribute to stress reduction and trauma recovery.”
Make sure to check in and keep in touch with loved ones, even when you’re not able to meet face-to-face. Text messages are great. Voice or video calls will be even better, as they will activate more of your senses as well as your mirror neurons. You can use this time to find alternative methods of showing care and keeping in touch. Try writing physical letters or even creating a scrapbook with memories and shared jokes.
If you don’t have an animal that you can interact with, hugging a stuffed animal or pillow can also simulate the feelings of safety and warmth you would get from human touch. Even if this hasn’t been your previous practice, we are in a unique set of circumstances.
The benefits you will receive from gardening or taking care of indoor plants can also mimic some of the same bodily responses you get when caring for a loved one.
Self-regulation techniques to calm your nervous system include stretching, humming, and embodied movement practices such as tai chi. Experiment with several different ones until you find those that work for you.
During times of uncertainty and panic, it’s important to take precautions and stay safe. We don’t want to put our loved ones in harm’s way. Exercise caution, but remember to keep your emotional and mental health a priority. Keep touch and connection alive in your life as much as you safely can, for the benefit of us all.