‘A hug is always the right size,’ says Winnie the Pooh in The House at Pooh Corner.
While the self-confessed ‘bear of little brain’ is clearly fortunate to have never experienced a hug that was too big or too small, he accurately hones in on a fundamental aspect of being human: our need for touch.
From the day we are born, we are wired to desire and need touch from other humans. The amount we require differs, of course, across individuals and cultures, but to be deprived of the amount that we need creates feelings of loneliness and emotional deprivation.
We especially feel the need for touch when we are uncertain, worried, or vulnerable. And so the social distancing measures that came into play most strictly at the beginning of the first lockdown, and which have remained to varying degrees ever since, have been a particularly difficult aspect of the pandemic for many. Indeed, a recent study carried out by researchers at University College London (UCL) shows that the combination of the stressful situation and lack of physical touch have created heightened levels of anxiety and increased feelings of loneliness. For those who live alone, which amounts to almost 8 million people in the UK, this has become even more of an issue, with some now living in real fear of another lockdown being imposed and the attendant emotional deprivation and feelings of isolation they may again experience as a result.
This shows, of course, that our desire for touch is intimately connected to our innate need for emotional connection. To feel that your existence is acknowledged and accepted by at least one other person is essential for mental and emotional wellbeing, and there is increasing evidence of the positive benefits of emotional connection and physical intimacy on physical health. Neo-natal intensive care units have instituted ‘kangaroo care’ in recent years for this very reason: it not only helps create the emotional bond between parent and baby, but can also help the baby recover from prematurity and the health difficulties that often come with it. And as every parent knows, nothing heals a toddler’s stinging scuff or scrape more effectively than a reassuring cuddle and a kiss or rub on the affected area of skin! Somehow it seems we have always instinctively known this, with tales of physical ailments being cured or relieved through physical interaction with a healer, appearing in stories that go back thousands of years.
In Greek mythology, Asclepius is the God of Medicinal Healing. In art and sculpture he is depicted with a snake-embellished staff as a symbol of his healing abilities, but in the stories in which he appears, he achieves incredible acts of health through touch, even bringing a corpse back to life with his hands. Unfortunately Zeus rather takes exception to this and considers Asclepius to have over-stepped the mark, striking both him and the reanimated patient down with a thunderbolt, but the narrative that touch really does make us feel more alive still holds, even if we sometimes also experience stormy weather along with it!
The figure of St. Brigid is so powerful in both Irish and Pagan folklore that her ability to reassure and heal through touch extends to bringing people back from the brink of death, as well as tales of curing blindness, leprosy and burns. In the Pagan version of her, she is also the Goddess of Fertility, again showing the connection between physical touch and the ability to feel ‘new’ or alive.
Throughout the stories that humans have told, being deprived of touch and emotional connection is associated with deadness, whether real or metaphorical. And it is a broadly common feature of many religions that ideas of a heaven involve spending eternity with those you love, while ideas of hell involve being separated from them and deprived of love and acknowledgement.
Our emotional connections are the foundations upon which we build the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. Why else do we take photographs and look at them repeatedly, sometimes years after they were taken? They are evidence of our emotional connections, of the events and time we have shared, and the nourishment we have been given. Physical touch keeps the bank account of emotional connection at a healthy balance, and helps prevent us from feeling emotionally impoverished.
We are, in the end, material beings, and our bodies crave physical confirmation of our emotional attachments. Even the technology that we often decry for severing intimacy relies on our touch in order to make it respond. If we can take a positive from the UCL study, it is that we can see very clearly now how essential it is that we accept our need for emotional connection is not the ‘optional extra’ that an over-stimulating and fast-moving society often suggests, but a fundamental innate need that helps us feel loved and mitigates our levels of anxiety.
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