The art of maintaining the correct and safe personal comfort zone during interactions has changed dramatically over the past few weeks. Yes, folks, it has only been a few weeks although it feels like months.
I've had social distancing down for a while - I hate to brag - this is not a new concept because, as an empath and sensitive person, I easily become overwhelmed and feel uncomfortable if people stand too close. Even with family, and those I love, if I am having a particularly sensitive day the idea of physical contact makes my skin crawl. I've always worked by the rule that if you are unfamiliar to me or an acquaintance and I can feel your body warmth, you are too damn close.
It makes standing in line at the local shopping outlet really interesting at times. I've even had to say, "excuse me, I don't intend to be rude, can you please take a step away as you are too close and it is making me uncomfortable." This has offended some and others have been very accepting and understanding. It seems now that with social distancing a standard thing, these conversations will become stock-standard or unnecessary. For people like me, this is comforting.
There is one down side to social distancing that we really do need to address and I don't know if we have given it any consideration.
Physical contact is a human need. Not a desire, a need. We are hardwired for human contact. Our very skin is full of receptors for this exact purpose. We know from the research and studies conducted into mental health conditions, that the lack of physical contact with other humans is harmful and detrimental to our mental wellbeing. There is a common statement, meme-ised often, from world-renown psychotherapist, Virginia Satir:
With social distancing, where does this leave us?
I am left wondering, if we are becoming a mysophobic (scared of germs) society and scared to touch others due to contamination, how is this going to play out on our mental health?
There are those that are already struggling with the state of the world, do we want to add depression and anxiety to that load? Of course not!
Someone I know gave me what I believe to be the best catchphrase as a reminder for the current times:
Social distance not emotional distance
As I see it, this is a great starting place and I would like to add, social distance not complete human isolation or emotional distance. Complete isolation from human touch is severely dangerous.
There was research done into the effects of no human touch and withholding love after World War 2 and the results were so definitive on the dangers that in the orphanages that sprung up in post war in Germany and England, for the babies who were abandoned or whose parents were killed, they employed hugging nurses whose job was to hug and rock each baby multiple times per day to guarantee their survival.
I understand, and I want to make it very clear that I am not advocating ignoring the guidelines from health organisations and governments, that we need to keep our distance from people for the time being to slow the infection curve BUT long term physical isolation is unhealthy.
In light of this what can we do?
For those that live with others, hug each other, hold hands, give each other massages through clothes (or onto bare skin if that is firstly appropriate and secondly consenting for both parties), massage someone's shoulders, rub their back in a platonic, comforting gesture like a caring parent would.
This does several things, firstly it reaffirms to everyone that we are okay and safe, it demonstrates appreciation, respect, kinship, and love. It releases a hormone into our blood stream called oxytocin, a powerful secretion from the pituitary gland that strengthens the bonds between people. Did I mention it makes us feel safe? I think we could all do with a little bit of that about now.
These things are especially important for children for their neurological, physical, and mental development.
The people that concern me are those in total isolation and by themselves. If you know of a love one or acquaintance in this position and they have a pet, suggest they hug the pet as much as they can, encourage the dog or cat (within reason of course and safely) to sit on their lap or to cuddle into them. Weighted blankets can help in these circumstances too as well as self massage (and I don't only mean self pleasure).
If you are alone and without another human or animal then simple actions like rubbing your hand over your bare skin can provide you with some of the feedback your body will crave. Simply think of an area you have not recently touched, one of the most common areas is the inside of your forearms; gently and lightly glide your hand up and down each forearm, one after the other. You may choose to close your eyes and pay attention to how it feels. Allow yourself to relax into it. You might notice how it tingles or tickles as you do so. You might choose to rub your hand up over your palm and down the back of your hand, continuing up the back of your forearm to your elbow, or even to your shoulder. The object here is to fully feel and appreciate the sensation on your skin. If you wish you can continue to do the same on your legs, gently gliding both hands up each leg and again, paying attention to how it feels and letting your body relax. You may wish to apply slightly more or less pressure and experiment with how each feels.
The added bonus to doing this on your legs is the free lymphatic drainage you are giving yourself in the process as it helps to stimulate the flow of the lymph fluids. **
By ensuring that we each receive appropriate physical contact from loved ones we not only strengthen the bonds between us, we help to ensure that we can step from our cocoons without the mental distress that comes with complete avoidance of human contact.
Be aware that we must ensure that we have consent to touch another person, even if they are family and kin. Always, always, ask first and stay within each person's personal boundaries. Check in often because what feels good for you may not for someone else. Every person has a right to say no and stop and we all have an obligation to uphold and respect that.
Truthfully, this viral outbreak is helping us to relate to each other in an entirely new way, it is re-calibrating the concepts of appropriate touch, consent to touch, and helping us to understand the importance of human contact (emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual) on a new level.
Like I said, I don't know if we have considered the long term consequences of social distancing and the potential hiccups it may cause. By being mindful of our physical touch needs and understanding the importance it has on our mental wellbeing, we can ensure that everyone is getting our basic needs in a safe, inclusive, and supportive way.
**Please note that if you have any medical condition relating to kidneys, liver, compromised detox pathways or are on pharmaceutical drugs do not practice this on your legs without first seeking medical advice.