The Beyond - Post COVID19: A world without physical touch & hugs

I was talking with my neighbor this past weekend about the current state of life. We got to talking about how great it will feel to go to a party or local brewery and be around more people than just our close friends and family. He then started to share with me that his 4 year old daughter has become hesitant about giving and receiving hugs…even from her own family.

Our conversation paused as I responded, “Wow.” I could tell just by his facial expression that he had an underlying energy of concern as well.

As someone who is trained in pediatric development, I couldn’t help but go into doctor mode for a moment. She’s starting to associate physical touch and hugs as something to fear or something to be cautious about.

I continued to reflect deeper on how this little girl’s life is being shaped by such actions. How will this impact her relationships as she ages? How will this impact her ability to be safe in physical contact? How will this impact her ability to play and be close with friends? How will this impact her ability to feel secure in during intimacy? And I don’t mean just sex…I mean feeling safe shaking hands as an adult who pursues a career or giving and receiving hugs when the timing is appropriate. How will this impact her ability to develop deep, long-lasting, and meaningful connections with others?

What happens beyond all “this?” And by “this” I mean how the world has currently responded to COVID19 and now the cultural response to recent racial injustices.

What happens in a world without touch, without hugs? What happens in a world without smiles, without friendly eye contact?

What happens in a world where we cannot detect the emotional state of our neighbor because we cannot see them smile, frown, or laugh?

Imagine a world where no one touched each other. No hugs, no handshakes, no high fives, no massage, no chiropractic, no physical therapy, no osteopathy, no energy work, no sports, no physical contact whatsoever.

Imagine feeling a rush of love or excitement for a loved one…so much so you just want to squeeze them and hold them…and then being immediately denied and shut down.

We all know that feeling of a deeper embrace, where neither persona wants to let go. You can feel their heart beating on your heart almost as if it’s entrained as one beat. It’s like the world stops spinning and time stands still.

Imagine all of this - gone, extinct from our planet. And if you do act on impulse or desire, you’re jailed, punished, and fined.

When you imagine this world, how do you feel in your body? I know it sounds extreme, but seriously…sit with it for a moment and just imagine what that life would be, look, and feel like.

You see…when we experience physical touch, the brain releases oxytocin, a “bonding hormone” that makes us feel secure and trusting towards one another. It also lowers cortisol levels which leads to increased white blood cell production (aka your immune cells) and overall decreased stress response.

This is the same reason why midwives encourage skin-to-skin contact with newborn babies. It helps in creating a deep, profound bond between infant and parents (yes, even if the newborn baby is adopted shortly after birth).

Additionally, our Social Vagus Nerve System (AKA Ventral Vagal Complex) is highly impacted at this time due to the use of facial masks. This is the branch of the Autonomic Nerve System (think Automatic bodily functions such as digestion, respiration, metabolism, elimination, etc.) that is responsible for facial expressivity, as well as expressive and receptive domains of verbal communication. This guides the rhythm and tone of your speech and helps provide meaning to your communications. Furthermore, your social nerve system enhances your ability to listen to others allowing you to pick up on emotional nuances within communications. And, considering that the vagus nerve links the heart to the muscles of your face, you will be more likely to engage in empathic responses.

When our nerve systems are unable to appropriately receive and interpret the social and facial cues of those around us, this activates the sympathetic nerve system and brings our system into a state of “fight or flight.”

Basically, our system goes, “Wait a minute…can this person be trusted? I’m not too sure…”

Think of it this way - we all know that feeling when we see a robber on TV or movies. We have no idea their intention, if they are aggressive or friendly. Why? Because our brain cannot see and perceive their facial cues (aka diminished social nerve system engagement, entrainment, and integration). Cue the fight or flight response. While this response is intelligent and proactive short-term, living in a state of long-term sympathetic arousal leads to chronic stress, chronic inflammation, and eventually chronic health challenges.

In contrast, we all know that feeling when we’re walking down the street and a stranger smiles at us. If we’re feeling relatively stable in our mood, we generally smile back, right? Perhaps we even engage in a friendly conversation. We feel a sense of connection, acknowledgement, and safety.

Now, I’m not saying go lick the faces of your friends and family because you miss them so much. I’m also not saying that we need to burn our masks immediately either. However, certain research articles would argue that cloth face masks might have limited effectiveness in preventing viral transmission. But that’s a conversation for another blog.

Here IS what I am saying to consider…

While we take precautions to reduce the spread of this virus, consider for a moment the deeper, long-term impact on the world when we remove physical touch and organic facial expression.

We as humans are designed for touch and intimacy with each other since day 1 of life. The truth of this runs deep into the wiring of our brains and nerve systems. For example, when a baby cries, our natural instinct is to hold them and nurture their cries. When a child falls off their bike, our natural instinct if you have even an ounce of empathic awareness is to lay our hand on their shoulder and ask if they are OK.

In addition, we must consider how our actions are impacting our younger generations (cue conversation with my neighbor). If you’re a parent, then you very well know kids pick up on EVERYTHING, even if it seems like they “aren’t paying attention.” You better believe they’re watching every action and listening to your words. Offspring in most species learn best through witnessing the efficient behaviors (AKA survival strategies) of their elders. Why learn something new when you can simply observe that which has worked for hundreds to thousands of years? This comes back to the concept of Nature vs. Nurture. When it comes to Biology and Physiology, life desires to pass on genetics for the success of future generations.

From big, bear hugs between friends to sex and intimacy with your partner, human touch and organic social cues are beyond essential for health, well-being, vitality, and beyond. To put it simply, human touch and non-verbal communication IS a subconscious language within the nerve system all itself.

So consider what you desire for our future world. Consider what you desire for our kids to model. Consider what you desire for future generations. Consider what type of legacy you want to leave behind. Consider what you desire for our educational system, our healthcare system, our political system, and our environmental system.

Everything is truly connected. We are seeing this now more than ever. When one system collapses and suffers, the rest will soon follow.

Life is meant to be holistic, integrated, and connected. The saying goes when a butterfly flaps its wings, a tsunami can be felt on the opposite side of the globe.

Begin to consider what type of life you want to create. Let us go beyond what is occurring in our current state. Yes, it’s important to acknowledge the reality of the situation. And, I invite you to look into the future at how you desire for life to unfold. I ask you to consider this not just for you, but also for your family, friends, co-workers, neighborhood, community, and the larger collective.

Human touch is a fundamental NEED for living a THRIVING life, not just a passing commodity.

Beyond the fear, beyond rules and regulations. Beyond what the educated mind and Dr. Google will tell you…

Beyond all that…

Listen to your gut.

Listen to your body. 

Listen to your breath.

Listen to your heart.

Listen to your spirit.

Yours in this awakening,

Dr. Mel

Thank you for reading the Inspire Life blog