coronavirus

Touch Deprivation: COVID-19’s Unexpected Side Effect

The novel coronavirus has affected the ability for us -- infected or not -- to utilize even the most basic of senses. 

NBCUniversal

Touch, according to experts, is the first sense humans develop, as early as when we're in our mother's womb. 

As it travels the world, taking tens of thousands of lives, to date; COVID-19's toll spans far from the harms of actually being infected. 

The novel coronavirus has affected the ability for us -- infected or not -- to utilize even the most basic of senses. 

For at least three weeks, South Floridians and the world have been encouraged to stay six feet away from others and ordered to stay home. The coronavirus pandemic has shut down restaurants, malls, big box retailers and thousands of nonessential businesses. It has emptied usually traffic-jammed streets, cleared public spaces and canceled or postponed events as large as the 2020 Olympics. News headlines have been flooded with talk of mask and ventilator shortages.

Perhaps an astute or even the average person saw all of that coming, but the deadly pandemic, which is arguably the most life-altering of our time, has also surreptitiously deprived us of the action that gives us a sense of connection, safety and comfort in a time when it is needed the most: touch. 

Tiffany Field, Ph.D., the Director of Touch Research Institute at University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, studies the effect of touch therapy during all stages of life from newborns to the elderly. Field says touch strengthens the immune system, combats depression and reduces pain and stress hormones. COVID-19 has launched a touch-reduced era, in which healthcare workers, first responders, grocery store employees and so many other essential workers must venture out into potentially contaminated areas and come in contact with people who may be infected.

The virus has caused many to got to unprecedented lengths to stay touch-free from their loved ones to prevent a possible spread when returning home from their essential jobs--some even going as far as sleeping in separate bedrooms or sections of their homes. This new normal is anything but. 

Touch, according to Dr. Field, is essential to the health and development of human beings.

"It saves natural killer cells that kill bacterial, viral and cancer cells," she said.

She points out, however, there are alternatives for people to attain the benefits of touch during this period. They include exercises like yoga, tai chi, or simply walking, which, she says stimulates the pressure receptors under our skin.

Self-touch or anything that causes skin to move is another option Field recommends. For those who are quarantined with loved ones who have not been exposed to the disease, she says increased cuddling, hugging and physical affection is important now more than ever. 

As if they weren't making enough of a sacrifice, essential employees are the ones suffering the most from the touch deprivation brought on by COVID-19. For those who cannot even go home to snuggle or be touched otherwise, Dr. Field encourages them to make the most of even minimal human interactions such as eye contact, smiling and waving hello -- six feet away. 

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