The long-term effects of COVID-19 on human touch

It has been over two months since most people around the world have been able to be with friends and loved ones. The feeling of missing others is universally understood, but why we miss them goes deeper than just surface emotions. 

Human nature makes us crave being around others. By connecting over common interests and goals, people become filled with pride and content and innately reconvene with these groups to maintain this feeling. However, as relationships build, so do ways of communication. Touch has been a strong part of some human interactions in all forms of relationships because it’s a part of social communication and fulfilling needs. As the pandemic has limited this amount of contact, it has now created a void that prevents us from flourishing fully. 

“I miss the idea of working together to achieve a certain goal,” said Jimmy Teeravechyan, a DePaul student living in Thailand.

Teeravechyan was involved with many technology projects at DePaul. He enjoyed this collaboration with others from different areas of expertise as they all gathered to produce the best outcomes for these endeavors. 

However, like organizations, all forms of human interactions work for a common purpose. These are due to both psychological and biological needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs examines what we need from the basic level to self-fulfillment. The needs of belonging and love are biologically handled by touch. 

“Intimacy or touch from loved ones or friends helps fulfill the needs of belonging and love and contributes to an individual’s sense of safety and trust,” said Jingjing Kipp, an associate professor of reproductive biology at DePaul. 

Kipp also explained how some studies have demonstrated how physiological needs can be satisfied by social touch as it increases the release of neuropeptide oxytocin in the body as well as the vagus nerve. These are both involved in modulating social bonding and emotional processes. 

Eric Norstrom, an associate professor of neurobiology and the co-director of the neuroscience program, said that touch can also affect moods. 

“From the neurological perspective, positive physical contact between socially close individuals activates responses in the body that can be described as generally calming,” Norstrom said. 

He explained the process of these sensations. They first flow into the central nervous system into the brain to be processed. If positive, impulses are sent down the vagus nerve, which innervates the body’s organs to coordinate parasympathetic activity, the opposite to fight-or-flight mode. With this in mind, Norstrom said that a hug from a loved one can lower blood pressure and provide calming neural activity. 

However, social isolation could affect mental health. Kipp said that long-term deprivation of touch could lead to loneliness, anxiety, or even depression. 

“These negative feelings may have an adverse impact on our mental health,” Kipp said. 

Norstrom said that it depends on how long the pandemic may last and the attitudes of different people as he compared to it if music was no longer around. 

“Consider a situation where all of the beautiful music in the world suddenly disappeared. Some people would be terribly affected while others would go about their days largely unchanged,” Norstrom said. 

However, he also explained how even prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the intersection between human touch and societal changes was a topic of interest. 

Even though touch is a part of human nature, Kipp said that there will be caution when it starts to come back. She explained how this has happened already as hugging, cheek kissing and handshaking have already been replaced by elbow bumps, smiling and nodding. However, she doesn’t think these will be permanent. 

“Eventually, once the virus threat has passed, one way or another, humans will re-establish their preferred ways of showing affection through touch,” Kipp said. 

Norstrom also said it depends on the extent of the timeframe of the pandemic and how it could resolve. Yet, its effects may last years. 

“I think there will be a generation of people whose behavior will be affected for many years. I know that my first handshake with a stranger will be a surreal experience,” Norstrom said.