A world without hugs and handshakes: The new ‘touch hunger’ pandemic

  • BW image of hands about to touch
University of New England
Joanne Durkin
School of Rural Health

COVID-19 restrictions that have brought isolation and great loneliness to people all over the world may be causing another pandemic right under our noses - one of ‘touch hunger’.

Touch is fundamental to the human experience but the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are now informing a new discussion about the importance of touch to our lives. To stem the tide of coronavirus infections we've seen stay-at-home-orders and social distancing introduced, a rise in telemedicine, and gloves made mandatory in every health setting.

We now live in a world of no hugging or handshaking, and constant warnings to keep our distance. Many people, especially the elderly and those with chronic illnesses, have been deprived of human touch and we're beginning to realise what we're missing.

We have long understood that touch is an essential component of socio-emotional, physical, cognitive and neurological development, and an important form of non-verbal communication. Babies need touch to thrive and, without affectionate touch, adolescents can exhibit higher levels of aggression.

I’ve been surprised just how often touch has come since I began collecting data in 2018 for my doctoral study on how compassion is expressed and received in hospitals. Although the term ‘touch hunger’ had already been coined to describe the craving for physical touch it wasn't common parlance.

My latest research is a direct spin-off from the compassion study. It demonstrates that, in healthcare, intentional, respectful touch is central to establishing an authentic connection, providing comfort, and conveying reassurance in times of distress. And all this communication between a patient and their carer can occur without a word being uttered.

It's difficult to comprehend personalised nursing care without touch. It's unavoidable when providing treatment and meeting a patient's basic needs (such as feeding, bathing and toileting), but Ms Durkin has concluded that a nurse's touch also builds rapport and trust, and conveys safety.

Nurses are adept at integrating intentional and comforting touch into their practice, whether it be mopping a person's brow, wiping their tears or patting their shoulder to calm them. Sometimes it's just a fleeting moment, but our interviews suggest that touching moments between nurses and patients are highly valued and can significantly impact patients' lives for many years. They benefit the nurses, too. There is simply no substitute for the kind touch of another human being.

The coronavirus has highlighted how not being able to have an affectionate hug or have someone hold your hand can cause its own suffering. After months of isolation, people have begun to crave the human connection, the human touch. Telephone and internet calls are a pale imitation and people are at risk of developing touch hunger, which has been associated with increases in stress, anxiety and depression.

However, the solutions may be just as problematic. Navigating the murky waters of touch can be treacherous. Even in healthcare, where it is commonplace, there has been confusion and concern that touch may be misinterpreted or harmful.

Health professionals can be concerned that their use of comforting or empathetic touch might invade a patient's personal space, be culturally inappropriate or inadvertently cause harm. The litigious climate of healthcare creates aversion to touch in the event that it violates patients' boundaries and damages the patient/health professional relationship.

But patients in our study described nurses knowing when to touch and use touch appropriately, and how the touch conveyed compassion and alleviated their suffering and distress. While we absolutely need to understand that some people have boundaries that must be respected, we seem to have forgotten the positive impact of touch in our lives.

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