It has been several months since the beginning of the COVID-19 quarantine and the scientific data is in. The number of individuals who have contracted the coronavirus and the number of related deaths are dramatically lower than predicted. While many breathe a sigh of relief, another virulent affliction is materializing from behind masks and locked doors. I am speaking of the significant mental health crisis we are now facing in our country as a result of this shutdown.
A brand-new, unpublished study by researchers Jean M. Twenge and Thomas E. Joiner reveals a 700 percent increase in mental distress since the current lockdown. Comparing data obtained in April 2020 to data collected in 2018, Twenge and Joiner found that serious mental distress increased from 3.4 percent in 2018 to 27.7 percent in 2020 in American adults. Likewise, moderate to serious mental distress increased from 22 percent in 2018 to 70.4 percent in 2020. More than two-thirds of our country is currently struggling with significant mental disturbance!
These numbers are incredibly alarming and, given the ongoing social distancing mandates, the number of people suffering from mental distress could continue to rise. Ironically, the one thing that could temper this dramatic increase in mental distress is the one thing we are told not to engage in: physical touch.
There is a long-demonstrated link between physical touch and psychological and physical health. Whether in Harlow’s research on rhesus monkeys raised with a wire-mother substitute in the late 1950s, to Romanian orphans raised in orphanages without regular contact, physical touch has proven critical for the development of the mind and social/emotional functioning. Physical touch releases the hormone oxytocin, commonly known as the “love hormone” or the “bonding hormone.” This chemical is necessary for the development of parent-child attachment and is involved in interpersonal relationships and physical intimacy. Physical touch also triggers the release of “feel-good hormones” dopamine and serotonin which greatly affect mood. When these are in short supply, it can lead to depression.
Touch lowers the stress hormone cortisol which is released as part of the stress-response or “fight-flight-freeze” reaction. This in turn can boost the immune system. In fact, physical touch in the form of hugs has been found to be a protective factor against respiratory infections and a symptom reducer once a person is ill.
Although we are encouraged to socially distance during this time, the need for physical touch for emotional and physical well-being is important. As our state reopens, it will be important to reach out and connect with others using discernment and discretion. Done right, human touch, ranging from social handshakes and high-fives to warm hugs and embraces, is a highly valuable way to promote and maintain emotional and physical well-being.