For the tactile amongst us, and even those who usually prefer personal space, it can be a stretch to go such a long time without a cuddle!
I’ve noticed it creep up on me as a background grumpiness or irritability. I miss hugging my dad, my friends, my partner. It’s become a sheepish preoccupation.
It seems so aloof to stand away from one another during a greeting or goodbye, hovering in that moment of tension when you would otherwise be reaching in for a kiss, hug or handshake.
Despite trying to make the elbow bump fashionable, I worry that my dad takes my social distancing a bit personally. We can all understand the (covid-19 protocols) on an intellectual level, but on a gut level there’s a subliminal twinge of rejection in that little space where a loving touch might have been.
Physical touch actually creates changes in the neurochemistry of our brain. It gives us a squirt of oxytocin (the same bonding hormone released when a mother breastfeeds her infant), increasing feelings of trust, connection and safety. At the same time it reduces cortisol (our stress hormone) and slows our heart- rate, which in turn calms our mind. So it’s no surprise that we might be having interpersonal withdrawal symptoms.
If you’ve caught yourself loitering too close to a stranger in the shopping aisle at Coles, hoping for an ‘accidental’ shoulder brush, this could be a good time to stage an intervention and put some basic self-compassion skills into practice.
Self-compassion isn’t as fluffy as it sounds. In a nutshell we can give ourselves the same kindness and understanding we’d give a good friend, and it has huge pay-offs.
Kristen Neff’s research over decades has shown that people who are kinder and gentler with themselves are much less likely to be depressed, anxious and stressed.. they have better mental health. (“The Chemicals of Care: How Self-Compassion Manifests in Our Bodies”)
Neff is also a big advocate of soothing ourselves through self-touch, no not the erotic kind. Her research has shown that it taps into our basic “mammalian care-giving system”, meaning our brains register touch as reassuring whether it’s from a special someone or our from our own hands. The same endorphins get released in the brain, letting us know we’re safe, held and cared for.
Neff also suggests that when we feel upset or lonely we can put a hand on our heart, our tummy, our face or anywhere there is emotional pain. We can make contact with ourselves in all sorts of kind and nurturing ways: An affirming pat on the leg to remind us we’re doing a good job, a light tickle on the arm to bring us back to the moment, a warm hand on the stomach to help us sleep, hugging our self during grief, a remedial belly rub for PMT, etc.
In short, if you’re not getting the physical intimacy you need, there’s no reason to go without. Self-touch can range from a friendly pat-on-my-own-back to an epic sensual stroking session complete with music and candles (but that’s for another blog)!
If all this seems a little out there, rest assured it’s backed by science. Hey, no one even has to know, and during this era of social distancing we might start a quiet self-love revolution.
Whether we see self-compassionate touch as a supplement for times of intimacy deficiency or as a political act to affirm our bodies as women (building a relationship with our bodies rather than objectifying them).. It could make a great addition to our self-care tool kit.
Warning: Side-effects may include a healthy, self-satisfied glow.
Read more about the research and tips for self compassion at: https://self-compassion.org/