I Want to Hold Your Hand: Regaining the Power of Touch in the Era of COVID-19

When I was a child, I loved to hold my mother’s hand as we walked through the streets of Brooklyn and feel the Power of Touch. In my teens I held hands with a few girls as we walked through a park or on a beach. I held my wife’s hand throughout our 57-year marriage, and I held her hand as she lay dying from cancer.

Nowadays I miss holding my children’s and grandchildren’s hands, because in the pandemic we cannot safely do that. Fortunately, my partner and I can walk together along the New Jersey Palisades with her hand in mine.

If you are seeking to connect with another person, try holding hands with them. And the way to hold hands for maximum effect is to interlace your fingers.

The Power of Touch can relieve pain and improve health

According to some experts, even in the womb we seek out others to touch. The Palmer Grasp Reflex makes a baby grab and squeeze a parent’s finger. Ultrasound photography has revealed 16-week-old fetuses grasping the umbilical cord. Twin fetuses have been observed to hold hands with each other. Science suggests that the act of holding hands is something built into humans. It is a trait that persist throughout life.

A 2018 study by pain researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Haifa University discovered that holding hands with a romantic partner who is in pain syncs both partners’ brainwaves and can ease the pain of the partner who is hurting. Partners holding hands also experience synchronization of their heart and breathing rates.

This phenomenon has been named “interpersonal synchronization,” in which people physiologically mirror the people they are with. The electromagnetic field produced by the heart and recorded in electrocardiograms can be detected at a distance of several feet from the body. Researchers call this phenomenon “brain-to-brain coupling” and suggest that it may play a role in touch-induced analgesia, or what is referred to as the “healing touch.”

Why is touch so powerful?

Cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone sometimes referred to as ‘nature’s built-in alarm system’ is affected by touch. Cortisol enables your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fears. It regulates blood pressure and sugar, reduces inflammation, and boosts the energy needed to help handle stress and return the body to the normal state of balance.

The Vagus Nerve, whose primary role is to slow the nervous system is also stimulated by touch. This causes a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure and relieves stress by reducing the hormones that produce it. Any firm touch to the skin, such as massage or hugging, will activate the Vagus Nerve by stimulating the body’s pressure receptors.

The Vagus Nerve, whose primary role is to slow the nervous system is also stimulated by touch. This causes a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure and relieves stress by reducing the hormones that produce it. Any firm touch to the skin, such as massage or hugging, will activate the Vagus Nerve by stimulating the body’s pressure receptors.

In a 2006 study reported in Psychological Science, sixteen married women were threatened with an electric shock “while holding their husband’s hand, the hand of an anonymous male experimenter, or no hand at all. Results indicated (an) attenuation of activation in the neural systems supporting emotional and behavioral threat responses when the women held their husbands’ hand.”

The stronger the marriage, the weaker the subject’s neural response to the threat of a shock. Thus, physical affection appears to reduce stress by calming the nervous system. It signals that we are loved, safe, and not alone in a dangerous world.

How can we safely touch each other in the era of Covid-19?

I am by nature a “toucher.” I love to hug people. I shake hands with friends or acquaintances, often clapping them on the back when we meet, or squeezing their shoulders to emphasize a point. And all this has disappeared.

Except for my partner, who is the other half of our “pod,” I never touch anyone. When I think about all the opportunities in normal times to touch someone, I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of this loss.

We are living in the era of social media which is supposed to bring us together, yet from the standpoint of touch we are experiencing a loneliness epidemic. During the pandemic, the safest way to get close to another person is via telephone or ZOOM, or one of its variants. However, none of these allow us to experience the emotional and psychological benefits of human touch.

How to enjoy Power of Touch during Covid-19

There are those who believe that even during the pandemic, there are safe ways to hug. These solutions depend on an understanding of how airborne viruses travel and how to avoid getting in their path.

the risk of contracting the Covid-19 virus from a brief hug, even from someone infected with the virus, is low.”

Dr. Lindsay MarrScientist at Virginia Tech

The number of virus particles required to infect a person will not be transmitted in a brief hug, so long as the person getting hugged does not cough, cry or speak during the hug. Or (much smarter) delay the hug until the infected person is cured.

Keep your hugs outside. Keep them brief with both parties pointing their faces in opposite directions. Don’t stand face to face, looking at each other. It’s safer to hug a person of your approximate height, so that neither person is looking up or down.

You should each be looking over the other’s shoulder. Try not to touch the other person’s clothing. While hugging, both parties should neither talk, cough or cry. Wash your hands afterwards. And hope for a speedy end to the pandemic.

I have a long list of people I wish to hug and make them feel the Power of Touch

Some family members live within driving distance, but others are in California. I used to travel to California every six weeks. My 90-year-old sister in Newport Beach recently asked me if I thought I would see her again. Two of my four grandchildren live in northern California. It has been a long time since any of us could safely travel cross country by airplane.

I won’t see them until the pandemic ends.

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