‘Massage breaks the pain cycle’: the return of touch – after almost two years without it

12th November, 2021.      //   pandemics  // 

‘Touch was something we took for granted, and now we don’t take it for granted any more.’

In a pandemic that has meant keeping 2 metres away from one another whenever possible, it appears that physical contact is beginning to return. Even handshakes are making a comeback: one poll found younger people were shaking hands again, although older generations are more uneasy about it. “We are wired to respond to emotional touch,” says Francis McGlone, a professor of neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University. “My analogy is that [touch is] like a vitamin – if we are depleted, there are consequences in terms of our physical health. I make the same argument about the C-tactile afferents – the nerve fibre that evolved in all social mammals to provide the reward associated with close physical contact. When the fibre is stimulated, it does a number of measurable things – it lowers heart rate and it lowers cortisol, the stress hormone.” It’s one reason, he says with a laugh, he believes so many people got pets during lockdown: “That’s the brain recognising ‘I need to touch something’.”

For the pet-less, touch-starved, skin-hungry among us, physical contact is a welcome thing. Even before the pandemic, we were living through a “crisis of touch”; perhaps the enforced distance of the past 18 months has made us realise how vital touch is after all. For the people whose jobs rely heavily on touch, it’s been a particularly difficult time. Here’s how they are navigating its return.

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