- Sudiksha Jain
In mid-March, India joined the world in being hit by the novel Coronavirus. Scientists and medical professionals declared that the only way to curb the infection were to reduce contact (social distancing), wear masks, and generally avoid crowds. Soon, the Indian government demanded all educational institutions be closed and I came back home. Then, our country fell into the never ending loop of 15 day lockdowns. That meant no leaving the house unless absolutely essential, no meeting friends, no going out, period.
As a person who loved being around others, it was okay for a while. I was at home, with my family - didn’t have to cook for myself, clean up after myself, was pampered and generally got a well deserved break after the end of a long and hard semester.
But about 20 days in, things became tougher. I missed my friends, going out to eat, late night drives. I even missed college and attending class! That got me wondering why. Why did I miss it all so much? And why were my friends, who were in similar situations like me affected as well? It wasn’t the lack of things to do - I had plenty to keep myself busy all day. It wasn’t for the lack of essentials - I was privileged enough to have enough to eat and more.
My experience and understanding have reinforced my belief that humans are social animals. We have an innate desire to be around other people. When there is a lack of human contact, we tend to humanise animals and objects - by adopting pets to cuddle or start talking to plants and other objects around them. Being social animals also means that we crave social contact. Which is why, the most ruthless and violent prisoners are often condemned to solitary confinement. We crave touching other people (in a non-creepy way). Most of us enjoy being held - we like being hugged and cuddled by a loved one. Babies want to be held against their mothers. Moody teenagers may not be excited by the idea of cuddling with their mothers but when they are feeling really sad or upset, they may be convinced into holding hands for comfort. When one witnesses a traumatic event, first responders often give them a “shock blanket”, which does exactly what it says- comforts someone by keeping them warm and makes them feel safe. The longest study on happiness conducted by Harvard University found that “People who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier, are physically healthier and they live longer than people who are less well connected”. According to Waldinger et al., “people who are more isolated from others, find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than those who are not lonely”. All these point in one direction -- even the most introverted, touch aversive people will feel comforted when in contact with others and suffer in isolation.
Coming back to the pandemic. The government introduced a nationwide lockdown on 24th March, 2020. The Prime Minister instructed everyone to stay where they were - not to venture out of their homes unless it was absolutely essential, the country’s borders were to be sealed and anyone who had entered the country in the past week had to self isolate for 14 days. Almost all of my friends who were studying abroad, came back home. A few of my relatives who were visiting family returned on the first flight back to India. Those who were lucky, only had their temperature checked and were asked to take precautions. Many others were quarantined in government provided facilities.
One of the biggest problems was isolation - lack of contact with near and dear ones. The rooms in the government facilities did not have TV’s, WIFI, cellular networks didn’t work well and one wasn’t allowed to be close to others (the same people they had travelled in a tin box for 20 hours with) . My aunt - who flew in from Australia, was in one of these facilities. When her phone had network, for a few precious hours in a day, she would call us and say "Kya karen, yahan rehna toh padega par poora din kuch karne ko nahi hai” ("What can I do, we must stay here, but there is nothing to do the whole day?").
My mother’s friend's daughter came back on one of the last flights from the USA. The Indian authorities told them that they had to quarantine the teenager in a room for 14 days. No one was allowed to go in or out and her meals were left outside the door. Her mother - on the verge of tears would call mine and say, “I’m so upset. I finally got to see my daughter after 4 months, she’s in my house but I can’t even hug her.”
Which brings me back to something I feel very often when I’m away from home. I like to call it being “touch deprived”. Because I moved to a new city to study - a city where I knew no one, getting hugs or affectionate touches were quite rare. Moreover, I was an adult. The most appropriate greeting changed to handshake-which doesn’t quite feel the same. Hugs were for children and high fives were for teens. I realized that this is something quite a few of us feel. Turns out, the phenomenon is called being “touch starved” or “skin hungry”. Research has also found that anxiety, depression and stress are positively associated with loneliness and affection deprivation.
So what I’m trying to say is that it is perfectly normal to crave human contact and maybe we have been underestimating hugs this whole time.
Sudiksha Jain is a contributing writer to Nolmë Mag. She is an undergraduate psychology student from Fergusson College, Pune.