Losing Touch: The Rising Cost of Social Distancing
March 12th, 2020, I met with a good friend at our local Starbucks (back when you could still sit down to drink your coffee at Starbucks). As I leaned forward to hug my friend, I saw the look of fear in his eyes as he pulled back abruptly and extended his fist for a quick “fist pump”. That was the day when I knew something profound was changing around me due to coronavirus. As the week unfolded the news was jam packed with one more wide sweeping change and then another.
So much has been lost to us as a society and as a human race in the throes of the global COVID19 pandemic. The losses of our peace, our usual freedoms, global economic devastation, and the loss of countless human lives are overwhelming. But I also lament the ways that we die a little every day through the necessary precautions of social distancing.
As an Attachment theorist I know that the entire human nervous system is wired to reach for touch and solace in our moments of greatest distress (Bowlby, 1969). It’s part of our design, from the time that we are infants, to derive comfort from the holding and nonverbal cues of our parents while our own capacities to self regulate are still underdeveloped.
This Attachment desire is literally a drive inside of us that compels us to reach out for others, and it draws us to be present for the ones who need us most. Attachment does not abate when we reach adulthood, even though we are less frequently dependent upon others. But when the darkness and sorrows of life crash over us, then our hearts and hands reach for the reassurance that we are not alone.
In infancy, each successive experience of reaching and finding has the effect of building an attachment bond between the child and his or her primary caregiver. Touch, face to face gazing, and vulnerable emotion sharing are key ingredients which build a strong and Secure Attachment bond between a parent and child (Ainsworth, 1978). This attachment bond is the tangible experience of love.
Through myriad interactions secure children come to anticipate the delight of their parents, and they look for parental comfort in moments of need. Children and adults alike send gestures of touch and warmth when they greet one another. When waves of strong negative emotions arise, we hope for someone to soothe us through touch and the gift of emotional presence.
Fear is one of the strongest waves that we as humans must face and need to regulate. When the limbic system of the brain gets activated from fear, then the Attachment drive compels us to connect with trusted others in order to settle us and reengage our frontal lobes (Porges, 2007). Immediately we feel better, gaining control and a more balanced perspective.
“Perfect love drives out all fear” (I John 4:18; Good News Translation).
Ancient wisdom and science all bear this out. Research shows that tender touch is life giving. One research study showed that holding hands actually down-regulated the arousal in the pain centers of the brain during a planned “electrical shock” experiment (Coan et al, 2006). Another study showed that wounds healed faster in the context of Secure Attachment bonds in couples (Gouin et al., 2010).
Finally, supportive touch has a demonstrated effect on reducing the negative effects of the stress hormone cortisol (Heinrichs et al, 2003). It suppresses cortisol, which thereby allows for better immune system, cardio vascular, and glucose functioning (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 2005).
But what can you do when the pathway for connection is literally blocked, keeping you distant from many of your usual hug and touch sources? We know that we must distance ourselves to slow the spread of a deadly virus, but what a toll we bear!
As a psychologist I used to warmly shake my clients’ hands at the start and close of each session. At the time of this writing, I am now relegated to virtual sessions in the interest of public safety. I am more than willing to do my part to protect my clients, but it’s just not the same. However, in each virtual session I endeavor to still provide consistent emotional presence, laughter, and compassion during the interactions. I want to keep the attachment environment strong.
In my writings and family building workshops I share that there are three key ingredients which build and strengthen the Attachment bond (Gill, 2015). These include:
1. Face to Face Gazing
2. Tender Touch
3. Vulnerable Emotional Sharing and Responding
I encourage participants to try to get a good healthy dosage of all three ingredients on a daily basis with their spouses and partners, and I encourage them to generously share all three with their children. Further, I encourage them that even two ingredients are better than one, and one is better than none. In the coronavirus era, where touch is limited, I am strongly encouraging us all to remember these ingredients. Here are some practical ways to apply these:
a) Get true face to face time with your loved ones. Being shut-in to your homes can actually afford you greater time to gaze and listen. You may need to turn off the news or social media to make this happen.
b) Find ways to tell more people that you love them, via phone, FaceTime, or in person.
c) Decide the few people who will be in your closest circle. Give them hugs and hold them close.
d) Send cards and letters to people who are lonely and sequestered.
f) Tell jokes and laugh whenever you can.
g) Be present to the moments of beauty and warmth which still exist. Share them with others.
Remember that all things pass, including crises. There has never been a pandemic of this magnitude, in the memory of any person living on the planet today. But this pandemic too will become precisely that, a memory. As we persevere through it together in the days ahead let’s hold fast to love and not lose touch of our attachment bonds.
“Even though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me”
— Psalm 23:4 (ESV).
Dr. Gill is passionate about marriage therapy and Attachment Theory. He conducts therapy, workshops, and trains other counselors. Learn more about Attachment Theory at www.facetofacemarriage.com .
Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1979). Infant-mother attachment. American Psychologist, 34, 932–937.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss (Vol. I). London, Hogarth.
Coan, JA, Schaeffer, HS, Davidson, RJ (2006). Lending a hand: social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological Science, Dec;17(12):1032–9.
Gill, J. (2015). Face to face: Seven keys to a secure marriage. Bloomington, IN: Westbow Press.
Gouin, J., Carter, C., Pournajafi-Nazarloo, H., Glaser, R., Malarkey, W., Loving, T.,… Kiecolt-Glaser, J. (2010). Marital behavior, oxytocin, vasopressin, and wound healing. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35(7), 1082–90.
Heinrichs, M., Baumgartner, T., Kirschbaum, C., & Ehlert, U., 2003. Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biological Psychiatry, 54(12), p.1389–1398.
Kiecolt-Glaser, J., Loving, T., Stowell, J., Malarkey, W., Lemeshow, S., Dickinson, S., & Glaser, R. (2005). Hostile marital interactions, proinflammatory cytokine production and wound healing. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(12), 1377–84.
Porges S. W. (2007). The polyvagal perspective. Biological psychology, 74(2), 116–143. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2006.06.009