Those of us who have been taking care to stay in our isolation bubbles (as much as is possible; sometimes work puts us around other people, for example, or the need to see the doctor or get groceries) may be feeling a real lack of human touch. Last week, or the first time since March, I reflexively shook the hand of someone who offered it and realized how much of an impact that small touch had on me. Humans are very social beings and touch is an important aspect of our mental health. One of the ways our systems self-regulate, such as calming us down after a stressful event, is through touch. The touch of others causes oxytocin and natural endorphins to be released, which is soothing to us. And yet, here we are: in the midst of a pandemic and the myriad stresses it brings and isolated from most of the sources of touch that we previously took for granted. What do we do?
I noticed as the shutdown first started that it seemed like everywhere I looked on Twitter, people were adopting new pets. And this actually makes a lot of sense when you know that one of the ways we can soothe ourselves is by stroking a pet. When we pet a dog, cat, or other friendly, furry creature (this definitely doesn’t work if the animal isn’t wanting to be petted!), both we and the animal experience a release of the bonding neurochemical oxytocin. Oxytocin is most known as being involved with childbirth (pitocin, used to induce labor, is a synthetic version of oxytocin) and nursing infants. It is at work in many other circumstances, however, as a bonding hormone and as a hormone which is involved with us feeling safe. So petting a beloved animal prompts the release of oxytocin, which causes you and your pet to experience a strengthened bond and increased feelings of safety and security. It is, in short, soothing.
But what if you don’t have a pet? Are you simply out of luck? Not at all! Fortunately, we can soothe ourselves. I’m not saying you will necessarily find it as rewarding as a long hug from your best friend, but we are able to physically soothe our selves to help regulate our nervous systems (and anxiety levels). You can hug yourself. Go ahead and wrap your arms about yourself, with your right arm hugging your the back of your left shoulder and your left arm wrapping around your right side to the back of your shoulder. Give yourself a squeeze for a good 20 seconds or longer. While you know you are hugging yourself, your body doesn’t know this and experiences it as a hug. You can also stroke yourself, such as slowly and repeatedly running one hand down the back of your forearm. You can place and hold one or both hands over your heart; place one hand on your heart and one on your belly; place one hand on your cheek; or hold one hand gently with the other. Each person responds differently, so try each to see which touches soothe you the most.
And if you are fortunate enough to be in your isolation bubble with others, consider making a point to hug or hold hands more frequently so that you can feel more safe, secure, and connected in this unsettled and disconnected time.
Although I am seeing clients by telehealth (video) at present, working with me can be another source of safety and connection in your life. I invite you to call/text me at (816) 226-4678.