No handshakes, no hugs, for many, especially our elderly, no physical contact from loved ones; this is the collateral pain of COVID-19.

Visits through panes of glass, or no visiting at all, is the imagery defining this pandemic. Keeping us safe from a virus has kept us physically apart.

We count on technology to stay in touch with loved ones, but can tech compare with touch?

Carleton University professor in neuroscience Alfonso Abizaid says tech is not touch, and the lack of touch is hard on our health, both mentally and physically.

"Like hunger for food, humans have evolved mechanisms that produce cravings for social interactions and depletion of social interactions lead to stress," explains Abizaid.

If you cannot be with the ones you love, Abizaid suggests having something of theirs to hold.

"I think of my lovely mother-in-law, Julie, who is an amazing knitter. She knits sweaters and blankets for our kids," said Abizaid.

“A lot of the time when you look at my kids, and they’re snuggling, they always grab those blankets because they have, in addition to being comfy and warm and fuzzy, they were made by their grandmother, so it makes them think of their grandmother.”

When asked about grandparents missing physical contact, Abizaid suggests:

"Maybe if the families, the children and the grandkids can bring a teddy and send a nice message, 'hug it and when you hug it think of us will be hugging you back.'"

Abizaid says it is so interesting that a physical object can offer comfort.

"It’s not only texture and how a material feels on the skin; it’s the association being made between that object and a particular person," says Abizaid.

“We are creatures that do benefit from vicarious experiences, and having some item to hug that is clearly associated with those we love may provide for respite."

Abizaid explained the importance of touch to our physiology, and psychology, on CTV’s News at Noon and how our pets, our therapy animals, he explains, play a role in our health.

"Pets like cats and dogs, who incidentally also benefit from the interaction, can provide the sensory information that can help mitigate the pandemic isolation effects on mental health."

Abizaid refers to decades old psychological studies illustrating the importance of physical affection and contact.

"To attain the full positive effects of social interactions we require the sense of touch. Our skin transmits touch information to brain centers that stimulate hormones like oxytocin, which are important for the formation of social bonds and the development of brain regions that allow individuals to socialize and form as they grow and integrate with their social group," said Abizaid.

“Being deprived of this important sensory information is highly aversive, and over prolonged periods of time, it could lead to disruptions on how the brain works."

Abizaid’s lab work looks at how the brain attains what biologist's term “homeostasis”, which refers to a state in which we are at a comfortable balance.

“When discussing homeostasis, people often use body temperature or energy as examples of homeostasis and I do study these mechanisms in detail, specifically how the brain works to attain temperature or energy balance.”

It has become increasingly obvious, according to the professor, especially with the pandemic, there are also mechanisms that are associated with "social homeostasis", a sort of balance in the way we interact with others and that when imbalanced, it can lead to diseases.

"Because getting out of any of these homeostatic comfort zones leads to stress and prolonged episodes of stress can lead to all kinds of physiological and psychological pathological states."

Professor Abizaid on how we know this:

  • Studies looking at neglect in children or social deprivation in animals show that these isolated individuals develop serious emotional and bonding deficits
  • Social shaming, isolation, or shunning are highly stressful for humans and other social species
  • Isolated animals will work hard to have the opportunity to interact with others.
  • Social bonding starts at birth with maternal-infant bonding which involves touch
  • Sensory information from the skin triggers cells within the hypothalamus to release hormones associated with social behaviors and interactions including hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin
  • Deficits in these peptides are associated with deficits in social behaviors including autism spectrum disorders
  • Social deprivation in aging individuals is associated with a more rapid decline in cognitive function
  • Stimulation of the skin by hugging is associated with release of oxytocin and this is correlated with activation of brain centers that the sensation of reward and pleasure, and a decrease in the release of hormones associated with stress like cortisol
  • Social touch is perceived a reinforcing (hugs, a pad on the back, etc.)

Professor Abizaid says hug those you can, when you can. 

Cuddle your pets, or even your cozy blankets.

"Having support care takers that hug those that are socially isolated is also helpful, as long as measures that prevent transmission are taken, and finally support animals can also provide a source of comfort."

Dr. Abizaid is interested in how the brain deals with stress.  This is the Carleton University project he, and his colleagues, published relating to COVID-19.