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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Missed connections: Less touch during COVID-19 impacts health; isolation is a big challenge

Our emotions tell us what science backs – a hug can do wonders to boost health.

Since March, many of us are avoiding those hugs, even the holding of hands, handshakes and high-fives under social distancing to slow exposure to the novel coronavirus. It’s most commonly spread from close person-to-person contact through respiratory droplets.

But withdrawal from touch has its own fallout. We’re missing those human connections, and we need them for our health and well-being, said Won-Fong Lau Johnson, a clinical psychologist with the University of Washington’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department.

“Touch does elicit that feel-good hormone oxytocin,” Lau Johnson said. In the U.S., many people show their affection through touch, including hugs.

“We have been really conditioned to respond that way – when we are touched in an appropriate and healthy way – where it makes us feel good. It makes us feel loved and needed.”

Although global cultures have different norms, research supports that affection and touch help us physically and mentally, she said. It also can help reduce social anxiety and stress.

“But during this time, we really are told to be 6 feet away from each other, that you don’t want to be in that space, and you definitely don’t want to touch each other.”

Mental health referrals have escalated since the pandemic hit, Lau Johnson said, and isolation is a big challenge. More people are at risk for depression and anxiety, she added, “So I think that’s where we have to be connected to each other.”

Lau Johnson said a June 4 New York Times article, “How to Hug During a Pandemic,” offers concrete ways to show physical affection, applying suggestions from a Virginia Tech expert on airborne disease transmission. Examples include allowing a smaller child to hug a grandparent at the knees, quickly embracing a relative while facing opposite directions or approaching that person from behind. It helps, as well, to wear masks and be outdoors.

But there are additional ways to make human connections, said Lau Johnson, who specializes in working with children, adolescents and families.

Find that one friend. “If you really thrive on hugs and being able to physically hold hands because it makes you feel connected and needed, what’s another way to elicit those same feelings?” she said. “During these times, particularly, I think it’s really important to ensure that we have a space where we can actually mentally be vulnerable, to have a space to mentally unload.”

Think of certain friends with a bond in which you feel comfortable to “let everything out” and be yourself, Lau Johnson said. Unloading in such a way gives a similar boost as physical touch, she said. “It’s that idea of feeling validated and comforted.”

“To be able to say, ‘I just don’t think I’m doing well. I have to home-school my kids in addition to working from home, and I’m fearful I’m going to lose my job,’ ” she said. “You’re feeling as if you can’t share what you’re struggling with because you think everyone else also is struggling, and you feel your struggles aren’t as bad.”

Balance. Consider the hierarchy of basic human needs. This includes adequate sleep, nutrition, exercise or walks and stress management. As an example, Lau Johnson said if she only gets five hours of sleep, she’s more prone to a headache and less enamored with a hug.

“So as much as physical touch is important, all those other things are also important because you almost have to have them balanced out before you can really receive the benefit of something like a hug.”

Socially distanced meetups. If Zoom or other video chats aren’t cutting it, consider a socially distanced meetup with agreed boundaries. She’s done that with friends in another family for a couple of outdoor beach trips. Some of her clients have set up their own “distanced” meetups.

“I think finding one or two people outside of the home who can be sort of in your quarantine bubble can be really beneficial and at least meet that social aspect that is missing right now.”

Pets. “Pets can actually really help,” Lau Johnson said. “They actually do elicit similar feel-good hormones, and there are a lot of people who live alone.”

She said animal shelters have seen a spike in adoptions since spring. “It’s this idea of feeling needed and feeling loved unconditionally.”

Cautious move-ins. Although this step would require careful consideration, Lau Johnson knows of situations where adult children talked to experts and all family members before deciding to move a senior parent into their homes. This was after everyone completed a strict 14-day quarantine with no symptoms.

These seniors had tried delivery of groceries and social distancing, but for some eventually all parties decided that it made sense to move in elder parents because of so many unknowns lingering.

“I’m not a medical doctor, so I want to be really careful, but I know these situations are occurring,” Lau Johnson said. “People really have to weigh the pros and cons, assess their individual situation and consult with a medical doctor.”

Watch for depression. Lau Johnson said depression can cycle so deeply that some people start to believe nothing will change and that everything is horrible. Job fears, pandemic news and school changes can build on that.

“This is an overwhelming time, and I don’t want to minimize how profound this pandemic is that a lot of us have never experienced. There can be an overwhelming amount of things, and it’s just constant.”

Feeling overwhelmed also makes it difficult to think about how loss of hugs or physical touch is impacting you, she added. “It feels so small compared to all these other things going on. That goes back to it doesn’t matter how small you think it is, it can still have a big impact on you.”

Express a wish to hug. “I think just naming it can be helpful, and say, ‘I really wish I could give you a hug. It really sucks that I can’t give you a hug, but I’m just so glad to see you,’ ” Lau Johnson said. She has seen people’s anxiety go down by saying these words, yet settling for an elbow bump.

For some who show their love for people by hugging, this might be more difficult because they don’t feel like they’re showing their affections, she said. Talk about that, with an air hug, to say, “I still want to communicate how much I love and miss you.”