I have long said that humans have impulses that rise above our basic needs. Once our essential needs for food, shelter, and sex have been met, humans feel pulled toward higher imperatives.
We want to find our purpose and we want to find our people.
Quarantine is a perfect time to locate meaning; there is great treasure to be found in the cocoon. Many of us have never had this much time for quiet introspection. In having so much stripped from our lives, we’re offered a golden opportunity to decide what matters enough to embrace anew in the After.
Harder perhaps than finding our purpose though is finding our people. When I talk about finding our people, I mean being with others physically, hugging and touching. Most people are now out there while we are stuck in here. Many have leaned into creative ways to feel connected virtually since we cannot be physically present with each other. Text threads, Zoom calls, livestream concerts, and 5:00 pm Watch Parties have created a semblance of community, reminding us that we are all navigating this together, albeit separately.
And while these help, it’s no substitute for physical touch. Humans are evolutionarily designed as social beings; like our cousins the great apes, we have troupe needs. And just like our primitive ancestors, we were designed to groom and touch each other. Humans have special nerve cells that are found only on hairy skin, like that on our arm or cheek. When our skin is lightly stroked, our brain releases opiate-like endorphins that leave us feeling happy and sated. Pressure on the skin activates our vagus nerve to slow the heart rate, speed up digestion, and lower the amount of cortisol in our bloodstream. Take away that cuddling, and our mental wellness – not to mention our immune system – deteriorates quickly.
Prolonged social isolation has a negative impact on both our physical and emotional health. Touch deprivation, also called skin hunger by psychobiologists, is a real thing.
In a highly controversial experiment performed in the 1940’s, newborns were placed in social isolation in a sterile environment. They were bathed, changed, and fed, but given no additional physical touch than was absolutely necessary. They were kept healthy but not hugged or cuddled.
A few months later, almost half of these babies died. There were no physiological reasons for their deaths other than skin hunger.
Some of us are lucky enough to be quarantined with people that we really enjoy being around. Even so, my husband and daughter are probably getting tired of my incessant hugs. Our quarantine rule is that Mommy needs a ten-second hug every hour. But what about those enduring quarantine solo or, even worse, with people that they cannot stand? There is no lonelier feeling in the world than being together with someone who leaves you feeling alone. How can we all avoid skin hunger?
The good news is that, while our skin requires pressure, it needn’t be from other humans. This is the perfect time to adopt a dog or cat; the shelters have been tragically inundated with abandoned animals. See your new best friend at clarkshleter.org. Then put on your mask, pick up your pet, and grab a collar and some food on your next grocery run.
Another great way to avoid touch deprivation is through fascia rolling, a form of self-massage. My yoga classes almost always involve rolling fascia, the web-like structure of collagen that stabilizes and encloses our muscles and organs. I use Tune Up Fitness balls, specifically designed for improving our range of motion and down-regulating the nervous system. But a tennis ball works as well. The gentle pressure of the ball stimulates the nerves on the hairy skin to release feel-good chemicals into our bloodstream.
I will be leading a free Tennis Ball Self-Massage livestream on Facebook Monday, April 13 at 11:00 am EST (on the Erin Skinner Smith page, not the OM place page). Grab a tennis ball – or any ball about that size you can find – and join me. Roll on.