Why we must not forget about the restorative power of human touch in the COVID Age

It came from the East…

What a difference a year makes – and this one’s not done with us yet. When 2020 was barely underway, way back when we thought we knew about “Project Fear”, a tiny morsel of news caught my eye. Reported by Dennis Normile and published in Science Mag, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it article described an, “… unexplained viral pneumonia that has sickened 59 people, according to the latest tally. No deaths have resulted so far, though some people remain critically ill.” Yuen Kwok-Yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong spoke then of the strong suggestion that “…this is a novel microbe jumping from animal to human…It is highly unlikely that this outbreak will lead to a major [SARS-like] epidemic, though we cannot be complacent!” 

I felt vaguely disquieted as I read that article. Little did we know back in January the scale of FUBAR not seen since WWII that was coming. How the way we live our daily lives was to become compelled by dizzyingly rapid increments to change beyond recognition. How, for many of us, we have had to mourn the cherished ones we’ve lost this year – seemingly gone in the blink of an eye; all at the hands of a novel virus that’s currently limbering up for a Winter Round 2. 

The isolation of lockdown has been too much for some. shutterstock_1699083628


…Zoom, Furlough, Cov-idiot, Circuit-breaker and now even Fire-breaker Lockdown; these words and many more have passed into common parlance this year. And we’ve all managed 2020 differently. Bez remarked on Celebrity Gogglebox that he’d had a “blinding lockdown”, while many more struggled with the isolation of shielding, the restriction and curtailing of our civil liberties, and having to adapt to the reality of “social distancing”. Others maintain that the whole thing is an elaborate hoax, driven by a shady Masters-of-the-Universe-Cabal, hellbent on control of the World’s population via microchips implanted into us under the guise of a vaccine. 

Wherever your views sit in relation to the global pandemic, as the seasons shift inexorably from the hazy, lazy golden harvest of late summer; into the dappled light of autumn hygge; and beyond into the winter of Flu Season, it’s more important than ever that we keep a mindful eye on maintaining our own self-care. 

Humans’ need for contact is innate. shutterstock_1825221899-1

The Magic of Touch…

We are after all social creatures, ill-equipped for long periods alone without meaningful human interaction. Even the most mentally robust of us are bound to have wobbled at least once during lockdown this year. And that was when, in the UK at least, we were blessed with an unusually long run of sunny weather to help fortify us while we were mostly denied the basic enjoyment of physical company. It wasn’t so long ago that touching elbows was about as close as we were supposed to get to keep the virus at bay.  

Ah, touching elbows. And let’s not forget the foot shakes, the namastes, and the shaloms – all contrived to duck and dodge and dive from the spread of the viral load.  We created these workarounds because our need for contact is innate; it is hard-wired into us. And as we have been shown countless times this year, the very nature of that ‘contact’ goes beyond being permitted to spend time in each other’s company, albeit at a prescribed “safe” distance. 

It is about touch. Because when we make a physical connection with another through: a handshake, an arm link, a cuddle, an embrace, hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin start to flow. They are the “feel-good” chemicals. We perhaps took those simple acts for granted in the pre-COVID Age, but who can forget the bliss of finally being allowed to partake in a cheeky support bubble hug?!     

Winter Wobblers…

But the concession of a bubble hug came when the Summer Solstice was still fresh in our minds. When we add into the evolving mix of a return to increased restrictions, the prospect of less daylight hours with even less of those hours yielding much in the way of sunshine, it’s no surprise that rates of stress, anxiety and depression are set to increase. 

Regular exercise; ensuring we nourish ourselves with a balanced and varied diet, focussing on fresh, seasonal produce; yoga; taking time out for reflection through journaling and meditation; all are invaluable tools to help keep our mental wellbeing on an even keel. And to further boost the odds of keeping the winter wobblers at bay, there is regular massage therapy as an integral part of any selfcare toolkit. 

The stats speak for themselves. According to the Federation of Holistic Therapists, some 82% of its members regularly support clients living with stress and anxiety as a feature in their lives. 

Human touch decreases stress. shutterstock_1247352520

The Power of Touch…

Multiple research studies over the years have looked into the potential therapeutic effects of massage in a variety of settings: investigating its effect on physical pain for conditions such as muscular ache/spasm, arthritis and fibromyalgia; studying how massage might improve patients’ recovery from stroke; and even its impact on sleep patterns in children with autism are just a few examples

One such study, The Power of Touch, a collaboration between the University of Oxford and Liverpool John Moores University, discovered that pain-related neurological activity was reduced by stroking babies at a particular speed already shown to have exhibited a reduction in adult pain response. Professor Rebeccah Slater said that, “Previous work has shown that touch may increase parental bonding, decrease stress for both the parents and the baby, and reduce the length of hospital stay. Touch seems to have potential analgesic benefits without the risk of side effect.” 

With all of that in mind, our personal challenge is to keep those tools in our grasp when we feel we are starting to cast adrift and become separated from the anchor of our own wellbeing.  

If my own personal experience is anything to go by though, that’s easier said than done! My twin sons were born coming up for 17 years ago, over a month prematurely and only weeks away from the Winter Solstice. I admit to being quietly gratified today to learn of the research findings in The Power of Touch. Because back then, while already in the vice-like grip of a severe bout of post-natal depression that wouldn’t be diagnosed for months still to come, I would massage my tiny and beloved babies, morning and evening without fail. 

The ritual of it was something I clung to desperately, even though with each passing day it felt like my grip on me was loosening: giving way to more bewilderment, more muddle, and more of the creeping fear that something I couldn’t quite understand was damaging our bond. Such a shame looking back – it didn’t once occur to me that I might have benefitted from that same nurturing and restorative care delivered through the power of human touch.    

Fast forward more than a decade, to a time in my life when the differently flavoured but no less debilitating effect of chronic anxiety was my constant companion. I found myself the recipient of an amazingly thoughtful beauty treatment, gifted to me by a dear friend. The only snag was that I would have to drive us to Reading in the run up to the evening rush hour; where parking was going to be a right nightmare; and where I’d actually have to interact with other human beings; and…and…I could feel myself hurtling up the Yerkes-Dodson curve ready to get me some rollercoaster airtime! 

All kinds of excuses fizzed around my head to swerve that appointment – such is the nature of anxiety, I suppose. But in the end, we made the trip and in that three-hour appointment, yes, I did find relief. Relief and respite from spending time in the company of a loved one and being taken care of by a complete stranger. 

More recently still, a client cancelled her scheduled appointment with me for Tui Na massage. I understood entirely her explanation of feeling so overheated with the multiple stressors coming at her from various angles in her life that (to use her own words), “…I’m not in the right place for me.” In the same week, another client contacted me in advance of her scheduled treatment to check it was still appropriate to attend given that her anxiety was going “…through the roof”. 

All of this got me thinking. Why is it that at the times when we most need to focus on our selfcare and welfare, we are the most vulnerable to withdrawing and turning away from the path that is most likely to lead to relief and respite? Perhaps it’s because we tend to regard therapies such as massage, hands on healing, or beauty treatments as rewards or indulgences. We only need to look at the way that spas advertise their services with taglines such as, “Treat yourself and indulge in a day of pampered bliss” to start to see how that kind of thinking might be subliminally reinforced in our minds. 

Surely the reality is that we should be looking at therapies involving the restorative quality of touch as an essential part of our maintenance, and not just for our benefit physically but to replenish our minds, our emotions and our spirits. In other words, to help us feel whole again. 

I invite you, the reader, to reflect for a short moment on what that means for you. For me, it’s about that feeling of being nurtured and cared for. Whether the bodywork is delivered in a spa setting; through a clinical sports massage replete with the waft of mentholated cream; or even the complementary Shiatsu-style head massage my lovely hairdresser, Tori, weaves into the process of washing out my colour after I’ve finished “cooking”, I always emerge feeling, well…rebooted, revived and restored. 

How did the last massage you received make you feel? 

Regular self care is vital! shutterstock_530961361-1

Massage in the Covid Age…

Perhaps you’re feeling inspired to arrange your next, or even your first massage! Of course, that brings us full circle and back to life with the ‘rona, as we now know it. Just as the government is tasked with circumnavigating the nation through the dark Winter days ahead, while somehow balancing the beleaguered and fragile economy, again, our personal challenge is to take care of ourselves – as safely as we can. 

There is a wealth of choice out there with the variety of massage techniques from all over the world. From the slow dance-like flow of Hawaiian Lomi lomi, to the therapeutic yet deeply relaxing style of the Tui Na massage I practice, which is performed fully clothed and so minimises skin to skin contact; there’s surely a massage flavour to suit everyone.

Contact professions have been back working for several months and we are well accustomed now to the host of safety measures incorporated into our working days, all designed to minimise the spread of viral infection while still providing a meaningful and much-needed service to our clients. From risk assessments and pre-treatment questionnaires, to full PPE, with rooms fully stripped down and disinfected along with larger gaps between client appointment times, it is still possible to maintain and nurture our wellbeing – inside and out – during this COVID age. 

One thought on “Why we must not forget about the restorative power of human touch in the COVID Age

  1. An interesting read! Having felt the frustration and internal struggles of much, much less human touch this year, the benefits of Tui Na massage are even more needed.

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