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Pata, Pata: The Psychology of Touch

In 1967 when the legendary Xhosa songstress Miriam Makeba released the tune, “Pata, Pata,” (literally translated, Touch, Touch), few would believe the world would reach an age where touching was almost taboo. Touch remains the most important method of taking in and communicating information, and healing. Babies, small children, and the elderly often show signs of emotional fatigue and distress when not held, hugged, or touched for long periods of time. In recent months, with the world facing extended periods of isolation through quarantine, a sharp increase in the number of people experiencing emotional trauma through touch deprivation, has developed.

Experts say not knowing when it will be safe to hug, touch, and comfortably interact with others without fears of becoming ill, adds to the sense of touch deprivation, also called skin hunger. Such was the case for southwest D.C. resident Anna Clark, who told The Informer she felt an overwhelming sense of dread when her son’s family — including tween grandsons — visited her weekly at the onset of the coronavirus quarantine because she could not touch them.

“We are a family that hug and kiss one another, we are very expressive and affectionate naturally. So, to see them and have to wave at them instead of touching their faces or just holding their hands, saddened me to tears,” Clark said. “They were driving 30 miles each week to check on me, but I felt depressed and unable to cope with not hugging and kissing them.”

Clark’s sleep pattern and appetite waned, as did her motivation to go outside and interact with others. In short, she was suffering from touch deprivation. This condition refers to the negative effects felt while going through long periods of time without physical contact with other humans. This could be days, weeks or months depending on the person. Touch deprivation can lead to mental health-related difficulties like increased stress, feelings of loneliness, depression or anxiety, difficulty with emotion regulation and trouble sleeping.

Fortunately, Clark’s son, his wife, and their children felt as emotionally taxed by the touch deprivation as she did and after months of waves, on her birthday in June, the family donned masks, sprayed down with disinfectants, said a prayer, and physically reconnected.

“I cried so hard I was shaking. It was the greatest feeling in the world because as basic as it seemed, it was what we needed,” Clark said. “Only later did I find out that my grandsons were also experiencing the same sleeplessness and sadness I was. We did not want to risk giving each other this virus but we were becoming ill all the same.”

Similarly, 60-year-old Liverpool grandma, Sheila Abbott, purchased a full hazmat suit and gloves so that she could hug her 6-year-old grandson.

Touch, according to Dr. Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, makes people more aware of their personal boundaries, allowing them to connect with others at a deeper level.

“Human beings are wired to touch and be touched. When a child is born, that is how they bond with their mother — through touch. Our wiring system has touch everywhere, so it’s difficult for us not to think about physical contact,” Shah said. “When someone is [touch] starved, it’s like someone who is starved for food. They want to eat, but they cannot. Their psyche and their body want to touch someone, but they can’t do it because of the fear associated with, in this case, the pandemic.”

According to a 2018 study by the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, touch starvation also contributes to an increase in stress, depression, and anxiety, creating a domino effect of physiological ripples. The body releases the hormone cortisol as a response to stress, activating the body’s “flight-or-fight” response. This can increase heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and muscle tension, and can suppress the digestive system and immune system — increasing the risk of infection.

Medical communities believe distancing keeps the virus at bay and continue to recommend touching only for those who already share a household. In the interim, thousands have grandparents across the globe have begun purchasing full hazmat suits online to keep the touch and feel of family healthy.

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