One of the series of articles we worked on with journalist, Kate Delmoder published on Irish Tatler online platform.

We are, at present, living in a time when social interaction is prohibited, yet consequently, we’ve never needed it more. But, in times of cocooning, social distancing and two-metre guidelines, one poses the question: are there ways around the connection crisis we find ourselves in? And will things ever be the same again?

When Nicolae Ceaușescu grew to power in 1960’s Romania, his totalitarian regime lay the then-Socialist Republic bare for social experimentation.

Throughout his reign, the country saw the proliferation of leagăne — literally, “cradles,” otherwise known as institutional homes for the very young.
These now-infamous orphanages were part of his plan to increase Romanian’s industrial output. Something, he believed, had been previously hijacked by way of domestic childcare.
In 1966, he enacted Decree 770, a natalist scheme aimed at the creation of a large population by restricting abortion and contraception. Before this, the Romanian abortion policy was among the most liberal in Europe; contraception availability was poor, meaning that abortions as a method of family planning were common.
The direct consequence of this was a huge baby boom.


In just twelve months the number of births almost doubled, and the estimated number of children per woman increased from 1.9 to 3.7. The generation born in 1967/8 was the largest in Romanian history, leading to an overpopulation of hastily-erected institutional homes.
These children, unwillingly, became part of the gravest psychological experiments of the time – growing up to be neglected, malnourished and often experiencing severe sensory deprivation in their formative months.
When Ceaușescu was overthrown, images of the aforementioned leagăne were broadcast around the world, allowing medical professionals to research the topic of maternal deprivation by way of touch on children for the first time.
The children affected, deprived of physical intimacy, were found to have physically smaller brains than average children who developed properly. Others suffered from poor impulse control, social withdrawal, problems with coping and regulating emotions, low self-esteem, pathological behaviours such as tics, tantrums, stealing and self-punishment, poor intellectual functioning and low academic achievement.
Psychologist John Bowlby echoed the lasting impact of neglect in his Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis which proposed that a “warm, intimate and continuous relationship with a mother (figure)” is necessary for healthy psychological/emotional development. Mother-love in infancy/childhood is as important for mental health as are vitamins and proteins for physical health.”


Touch is the first of the five senses to develop in human infancy, and it remains perhaps the most emotionally central throughout our lives.
Touch deprivation, or skin hunger as it’s sometimes known, is a condition that arises when we have little or no physical contact with others.
In her revised book, The Power of Touch, Phyllis K. Davis explores the human need to touch and be touched – and how the West’s cultural taboos have made us a touch-starved nation.
In it, she cites the importance as not just a physical act of comfort but a biological need by examining the catastrophic effects on individuals not nurtured by loving touch. People deprived of this kind of touch often exhibit compulsive overeating, restlessness, drug abuse, promiscuity, and workaholism.
Even more shocking, singles deprived of touch have a death rate five times higher than their married counterparts.
“Touch is perhaps one of the lesser researched areas in comparison to other senses such as vision,” Dr Lorraine Crawley, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Acquired Brain Injury Ireland.
“This is despite how important it is for us in our daily lives, both at a practical and at an emotional level. It has been suggested that it is potentially the sense that is most significant for pleasure and well-being, and psychologically it signifies the boundary between our own body and the environment around us. Touch not only promotes us to respond to imminent danger but it also reinforces the experience of positive connection with our world.
“From a physiological point of view, human touch can activate the production of the oxytocin hormone, which promotes bonding. At the social level, touch can form part of our cultural demonstrations of kinship.
“Psychologically, this mix of the physiological and the social can reinforce a feeling of belonging, affection, comfort, and connection with others which in turn is linked with buffering our mental health.”


While there is much research done on the importance of physical bonding in infancy, the power of touch and intimacy as adults is something that never wanes.
Physical touch in adulthood is known to improve the function of your immune system, lower blood pressure as well as reduce diseases such as those associated with the heart and blood. One study on women found that receiving more hugs from their partners led to lower heart rates and blood pressure.
“I think we don’t realise how important touch is and it’s something that can be taken for granted,” says Deirdre McCormick, Pre-Accredited MIACP.
“Our nervous system has two branches; the Sympathetic which is responsible for the stress response, cortisol and adrenaline release and the Parasympathetic which controls the soothing and relaxing function.
“The Parasympathetic nervous system works like a parachute, soothing and making us feel safe. This includes a bundle of nerves called the Vagus which, upon the release of oxytocin, works to reduce blood pressure and heart rate, soothing and calming our sympathetic nervous system.
“Human touch also promotes the production of dopamine and serotonin which are feel-good neurotransmitters. Having an abundance of these in our bodies can be a boost to the immune system/sleep/stress reduction too.”
Humans, as intrinsically social beings, share mirror neurons that allow us to match each other’s emotions unconsciously and immediately. We drip-feed emotions to each other which means we can anticipate and parallel each other’s movements when we’re in sympathy or agreement with one another.
But what happens when one of our senses are essentially eradicated overnight?
“Cocooning and social distancing are having a massive impact on us,” McCormick says.
“Beyond the rollercoaster of emotions we are all on, there’s a sense of the surreal about it. It’s also an event that is beyond our control which can be slightly traumatising to some people. I’ve been aware of increased anxiety in my own body and definitely sleep patterns are now erratic.”
Of course, the concept of physical touch is not something that conjures up the same feelings for all. One must consider those whose agency over their own body may have been ripped away because of a traumatic incident, but that doesn’t reside them to a life of trepidation.
“As a psychologist, people come to sessions with very different experiences of touch,” says MyMind Psychologist Anna Nauka.
“Some are traumatised or can be easily triggered so understanding and respecting that is really important. There is definitely light at the end of the tunnel, however. Through therapy, building positive experiences through life and rebuilding representation of touch in their life. Take it slowly but it can happen.”
For these people, Nauka explains, “self-holding” exercises promote nourishment and grounding. These self-applied somatic therapy exercises range from placing a hand on one’s forehead to laying a hand on one’s chest and are used effectively throughout therapy today.
But what about those who are suffering from the lack of interaction and/or affection as we self-isolating throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
“It’s a difficult time, especially for those who suffer from loneliness as is”, Dr Nauka says.
“Try to use the resources we have. I know, before this, mental health professionals touted the negative effects of being online, but now we’ve found that, during COVID-19, online connection is paramount.
“Solitude is important too, we’re always so connected with the outside world and now we have time to be with ourselves, to nap, to be quiet. We’re not torn with social engagements right now. Being alone has positive effects on our mental health as a time of reflection, a time to get to know ourselves and understand ourselves a little better. It’s not all negative.”


This time alone has, undoubtedly, allowed us to establish new routines – most of which may not involve touch. For those of us quarantining with a partner, consensual touching hasn’t wavered, but for those of us quarantining alone, that need for touch has not been fulfilled.
“If you’re used to having sex with a partner regularly, you may feel like you’re lacking right now,” Dr Nauka says.
“Some people may feel like they’re losing that sexual energy like it’s slowly disappearing from their mind. It very much depends on the person, but it’s not something we lose. It can be built up again.”
“Generally, with sex, I advise my couples to take it easy and find what you’re comfortable with over time. For single people, masturbation and yoga will help you to figure out a way in which you’re comfortable with your body during a time like this. Practise touching yourself. Squeeze your body like a self hug, this is a brilliant technique because it gives this sense of safety.”
Touch, as we know it in the real world, means little without the context that frames it – meaning it can be hard to differentiate its layered approach to wellness.
In a 2014 study by cognitive neuroscientist Alberto Gallace, research on touch has to date highlighted that it is multi-layered and it involves our cognitions, behaviours and emotions. At a behavioural level, it’s been indicated that touch can influence our social responses, such as how we respond to services and people around us, like as tipping at a restaurant.
“Research is already underway on a range of factors relating to COVID-19 and therefore we may in time learn more about the impact of the current social distancing measures which will expand our understanding of the role of touch in our lives,” Dr Crawley says.
“At present, the indicators are that touch can reach to our core physically, socially and emotionally. Multiple interviews with the public through media and social media have a similar theme; when the interviewer asks ‘What is the first thing you will do when this is over?’, a common response is ‘Hug a loved one’.”
The positive implications of such research have yet to make it out of of a lab and enter the public consciousness. But even as evidence increases, the human touch is something that is continuously undervalued. This is perhaps due to the gendered differences of touch and hypervigilance when it comes to touch in a professional realm.
“There’s loads of research on [whether touch affects men and women differently] but all genders produce oxytocin and it has exactly the same response,” according to Dr Nauka.
“Maybe with men, social conditioning and toxic masculinity have roles to play, meaning that touch isn’t as common as it is with women. Thankfully, that is changing now and I think men are becoming more open to typically female actions such as touching arms and hugging.”
In a study by Jim Coan and Richard Davidson, participants laying in an fMRI brain scanner, anticipating a painful blast of white noise, showed heightened brain activity in regions associated with threat and stress. But participants whose partner stroked their arm while they waited didn’t show this reaction at all. Their human touch switched off the feeling of threat.
These kinds of benefits can also pop up in unexpected places: In a recent study published in the journal Emotion, it was found that NBA basketball teams whose players touch each other more win more games.
The proper use of touch truly has the potential to transform the practice of general medicine.
For example, studies show that touching patients with Alzheimer’s disease can have huge effects on getting them to relax, make emotional connections with others, and reduce their symptoms of depression.
We are – as it were – just touching base with what may be possible.
As for touch in the time of COVID-19, each expert I spoke to advised the following to soothe touch-hungry skin. 
“Peter Levine has excellent self-soothing exercises to regulate the nervous system for anyone who is self-isolating alone. Find his work here,” says registered counsellor Deirdre McCormick.
“I recommend yoga to all of my patients as I practice it myself,” Dr Anna Nauka advises. “With yoga, you can practise with pillows or bolsters, by putting them on your chest or lying flat on your stomach. Otherwise cocooning within a heavy blanket is brilliant for relieving stress.”
“When we consider coping with current regulations, this can be as much about our interpretation of the events around us as the events themselves; i.e. if we view this as something necessary that will pass, our ability to manage it is likely to be stronger,” Dr Lorraine Crawley believes.
“For those who are not overly tactile or who have sensory preferences which result in avoiding touch, e.g. sometimes connected with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the comfort of words may be just powerful enough.”
Main image by @maximillianhurd