Touching the void created by social distancing

Linda Weiner

My stepdaughter Megan often chronicles her thoughts, ideas, art projects, fashion statements, dating conundrums and other intricacies of her 34-year-old life on Instagram to entertain family and friends. A month or so ago (who can keep track of time anymore?), she paced back and forth while ruminating about all that had gone wrong in the past few days. Bernie Sanders, her longtime love for president, had just ended his bid for the Democratic nomination. Singer-songwriter John Prine, whose music to Megan was like a second skin, had passed away from complications due to the coronavirus. 

And then, there was of course, the virus itself.

“I need a hug,” she yelled into her iPhone while filming an Insta. “Would someone just come over here and give me a hug?” 

It had been only a couple of weeks of sheltering in place but Megan, who is single and lives alone, was becoming unhinged. Or was she? Isn’t human touch integral to our existence? How could anyone manage for weeks, let alone months, without, at the very least, a gentle hug?

I posed that very question and more to Linda Weiner, a licensed clinical social worker and sex therapist who taught at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work for 14 years. Her specialty is “sensate focus,” a technique first used by Masters & Johnson in the 1960s that involves touch and being touched. 

I nervously joked that the Jewish Light is a family newspaper, but Weiner assured me that the human touch we would be discussing was strictly PG. 

“Dozens of studies indicate the importance of touch to survival, to the avoidance of depression and to physical and mental health benefits,” said Weiner, who is Jewish and whose son celebrated his bar mitzvah at Central Reform Congregation. “There has been an avalanche of studies that show how primal touch is, and ongoing through life. It’s critical in every way.”

Weiner points out that infants first learn to bond through touch; in fact, survival for many is incumbent on latching onto their mother’s breast to receive nutrition. Physically, touch can boost immunity and reduce pain, she says. It also stimulates the pleasure center of the brain that releases neurochemicals, such as dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin, which help our bodies experience feelings of happiness, joy, relaxation, improved mood and less anxiety.

Of course, that’s all well and good but what’s a single person to do during this pandemic, when he or she is self-isolating? According to Weiner, several measures can serve as worthy supplements to human hugs and cuddles.

“One of the things a lot of us have caught onto and bears out with the emptiness of our city and county pounds throughout the nation is getting a pet,” she said. “Being able to stroke a dog or cat calms us and our anxiety. They are companions and a lot of people utilize them in this way.”

Self-touch is another way to relax, Weiner says, and by that she means lightly touching your hair, face, arms and legs — “whatever you are comfortable with” — to allow you to be tuned into yourself.

“You can put on some relaxing spa music, light candles and maybe take a warm bath or shower ahead of time,” she said. “Most of us enjoy having our hair and faces touched; it helps us to relax, so why not touch our own hair and heads? Relaxing through touch is a way of stopping time and honoring yourself and coming back into a place of peace.”

Weiner also recommends any kind of movement — dance, exercise, martial arts, biking, walking, yoga, even laughing yoga. Any of those activities help us to feel calmer and more connected to our bodies, she says.

“Another thing to do is something creative, which engages a different part of the brain,” she said. “It could be drawing or an art project or even moving furniture around your house. It’s another way to connect with yourself.”

As for Megan, she is currently waiting to be approved to adopt a two-year-old rescue dog. I’m betting she’s either going to name him Bernie or John Prine.

News and Schmooze is a weekly column by Editor Ellen Futterman. Email Ellen at: [email protected]