What Happens to Your Body When You Go Too Long Without Human Touch
Remember hugging your friends, shaking hands with people at work, and kissing at the end of amazing dates? Me too…sort of. Now that it’s been months since social distancing began due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and all those options are off the table, a physical sense of loneliness is definitely starting to set in.
While it doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, going without human touch for too long can have an impact on your overall well-being. Everyone’s different in terms of how much physical contact they need to feel good, but generally, “after several months, the side effects [of going without it will] begin to feel intense and perhaps overwhelming,” Dr. Alisa Ruby Bash, PsyD, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells HelloGiggles.
But before we dive into the impact it can have, let’s talk about how to feel more connected during the pandemic—because there are certainly lots of options. As Dr. Bash says, daily exercise, yoga, meditation, and walking can all help to increase serotonin in your brain, which means you’ll feel more positive. Sticking to a routine, even when you have nowhere to go, can also keep you in a good mental space.
Beyond that, Dr. Bash recommends watching comedies to boost your mood as well as looking for other fun outlets, like talking to friends on Zoom. And, if possible, taking advantage of any forms of touch you can get, like from a fellow socially distanced partner or close roommate. “Even one long, genuine, platonic hug from someone we trust may be enough to help our mental and physical health,” she says.
With that in mind, here are the side effects of going without human touch, according to experts.
You might feel down
If you’ve felt particularly down in the dumps during quarantine, the lack of touch may be one of the reasons why. As Dr. Catherine Jackson, a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified neurotherapist at Optimal Neuroholistic Services, tells HelloGiggles, physical touch provides regular boosts of important neurochemicals in your brain, like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. And without it, you’re simply more susceptible to depressive episodes.
One way to remedy the situation is by purposefully seeking out massage or other forms of touch. “You can do a self-massage or have someone you know who has been practicing pandemic safety give you a massage,” Dr. Jackson says. “The two of you can even use some precautions, such as both wearing masks and the massager wearing gloves.”
Your stress levels can go up
There are countless reasons to feel stressed right now, but social isolation definitely isn’t helping. When you go without your usual interactions—like hugging, cuddling, kissing, etc.—your brain also starts to release more of the stress hormone, which is called cortisol, Dr. Jackson says.
As time goes on and you don’t receive physical touch to relieve it, you will start to feel wound up. “This is because there's no [...] release of the ‘feel-good’ neurochemicals to the brain to stop or slow the production of stress hormones,” she says, “resulting in more anxiety and worry.”
Dr. Jackson’s recommendation? To cuddle with a pet, if you can. “Stimulation does not have to come from another human to be beneficial to the release of positive chemicals in the brain,” she says. In fact, the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) explain that having a strong bond with your pet can decrease feelings of loneliness, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure.
You could experience withdrawal-like symptoms
If you’re someone who likes to be touched, you might notice that you experience actual withdrawal symptoms, Gloria Zhang, MA, RP, a self-love coach and registered psychotherapist, tells HelloGiggles.
“You may find that your body craves and reacts strongly even to just the slightest accidental touch,” she says. Think about the barista accidentally brushing your hand as they give you your change or someone bumping into you in the grocery store. It’ll all feel extra intense.
As a side note, if touch is one of your top love languages, Zhang says, don’t be surprised if it feels like your relationship is falling apart—even if it isn't—as you go without in-person contact with your partner if the two of you don't live under the same roof. “Mentally, you can actually feel less loved and cared for,” she says. “I have seen many couple conflicts during times of physical separation.”
Of course, even with all these potential side effects, it’s still best to continue social distancing. It isn’t dangerous to be isolated, but it is to go out without a mask or to ignore health guidelines. So keep doing your thing on your own, and follow these expert tips to feel a bit better until you can snag a hug again.