Martorella: Out of touch

Rebecca Martorella, LMFT welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at themomfront@optonline.net.

Rebecca Martorella, LMFT welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at themomfront@optonline.net.

Hearst Connecticut Media

It feels like I’ve been getting irritated more and more easily in recent months. It’s not just my age (or my kids’ ages), the pandemic, or our national turbulence. I think I just really need a hug. A spontaneous, joyous, “Hey, so good to see you!” heartfelt hug.

For me, the loss of physical contact has been one of the most detrimental consequences of this pandemic period. Positive physical touch is a scientifically proven mood booster. It’s how we show affection and establish relationships with others. Touch releases the “feel-good” hormone oxytocin, which helps generate positive thinking, increase compassion, and build trust. Touch also increases dopamine and serotonin levels, which help regulate mood and relieve stress and anxiety. It has been found to boost our immune system and lower blood pressure. In other words, it is essential to our well-being.

But now this fundamental sense has been restricted for almost 10 months, and we are suffering.

In an unfortunate twist of fate, we have been tasked with managing the devastating consequences of a global anxiety-inducing pandemic and the stress of national unrest without a key built-in coping mechanism. While restricting touch provides protection from the physical effects of the coronavirus, it has made us much more vulnerable to the emotional effects. When we most need to come together for comfort, we have been forced to stay apart. It is affecting the national mood as well as our individual mental health.

What’s more, the technological advances that have allowed us to continue education and employment in our home promote even more separation. Pre-pandemic, we were already worried about how people were isolating themselves more and more, living in a virtual world, staring at individual screens, losing basic communication skills. But for the last 10 months we have been encouraging it. Virtual school, virtual gatherings, virtual meetings. Curbside pickup, doorstep delivery, self-checkout, drive-through everything, all to limit contact. Even though we have chipped away at some restrictions allowing in-person schooling and small gatherings, we continue to require limited attendance, social distance, and no touching.

Virtual connection is not the same as in-person connection. And cautious in-person “interaction” with masks and distancing is still not the same as relaxed, carefree, in-person connection.

A recent visit from close friends really drove this home for me. Shocked by a now rare knock on the door, my first instinct was to check that I was dressed (it’s a pandemic, people!). That hurdle cleared, my next instinct was to open the door and offer a welcoming hug. But then I remembered I was without a mask, hand sanitizer or gloves, and “Don’t Touch!” flashed in my head. I stepped back, but I couldn’t ask them in. I became a nervous stranger with my closest friends. I felt like I was meeting them for the first time, unsure of where to stand or sit, over-aware of each movement. Awkward.

Some say this is the “new normal,” but there is nothing normal about it. It’s more like a new ABnormal. Our normal reactions are suppressed, and the urge to touch can be almost painful to resist. Things that used to be “no-brainers” cause us to hesitate, second-guess, and overthink. Instead of offering unquestionable support to family and friends, we have to carefully consider the ramifications, decide who is worth the risk, and evaluate whether we have time for travel with quarantines. It just feels wrong, especially during the holidays.

Spontaneous gestures of affection and connection - reaching out to shake hands, hug, tap an arm, give a high five, or rub a shoulder — are replaced with a flinch, a giant step backwards, or a jolt of panic when we accidentally brush skin. Air hugs and elbow bumps are just not doing it for me.

I worry that we are starting to be conditioned to view social connection as inappropriate. We wince watching pre-COVID television shows with characters in a crowded restaurant, sharing food, hugging and laughing together, like our kids do when they see people smoking in old movies: “Don’t they know that can kill you?!” On the other hand, I still feel a void watching television hosts conducting interviews screen to screen, or competition contestants celebrating victories onstage alone. Seems I even miss watching people hug.

There is such a thing as touch starvation. Instead of oxytocin and dopamine, the body releases the stress hormone cortisol, responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response. It can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension, and negatively affect the digestive and immune systems, sleep patterns, mood, and mental health. In other words, it’s detrimental to our well-being.

Humans are social animals wired for social connection, and such connection is scientifically proven to be the key to happiness. Let’s all be cautious and considerate in the short-term so we can get our lives and relationships back in full swing for the long run. And in the meantime, wrap your arms tightly around your own shoulders and give yourselves a big hug.

Rebecca Martorella, LMFT welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at themomfront@optonline.net