A topic fresh in people’s mind, since the pandemic, is the impact of touch deprivation and chronic loneliness. Until recently, persistent social isolation was not a common experience shared amongst most of the population. Due to the current health pandemic around COVID-19, many have been physically distanced from their support and social networks in an attempt to flatten the curve of infection.
For the first time in many people’s lifetimes, many are experiencing prolonged loneliness and touch and affection deprivation. Regardless of the current pandemic, loneliness is a normal human emotion and one that most people will experience in their life time. Though it may feel uncomfortable, loneliness itself, felt for a short duration of time, isn’t inherently dangerous. However, what happens when loneliness and lack of physical human touch and affection are issues an individual experiences for a prolonged time?
It’s likely many individuals have experienced loneliness in their lifetime. Whether one experienced loneliness during childhood and struggled to make friends or another who felt alone after a breakup with a romantic partner or good friend, loneliness is an emotion most humans are capable of feeling. It’s important to distinguish that being physically alone or isolated doesn’t necessarily mean that someone feels alone. For example, a person can be at a nightclub with their group of friends and although they are surrounded by many people, they may feel profoundly alone within their surroundings.
On the other side of the coin, a person may spend most of their free time by themselves engaging in their hobbies and not experience the feeling of loneliness. Issues to one’s physical, mental, emotional, sexual, and psychological health can arise when loneliness is felt for long durations of time. Evidence of chronic loneliness’s adverse impacts on mental health is particularly strong, including outcomes such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, suicide, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
The link with physical disease has been made between elevated risk among lonely or isolated people and coronary heart disease and cardiovascular conditions. In addition, there is evidence of a significant association between loneliness and cancer as well as greater susceptibility to infectious diseases.
Touch deprivation, or the lack of physical touch and/or affection, is also is important to understand in the context of chronic loneliness. Affection is one of the primary communication behaviors contributing to the formation, maintenance, and quality of human relationships. It supports physical health, mental well-being, and academic performance. The importance of physical touch begins at infancy. Touch and other forms of physical affection, along with positive reinforcements, are extremely important for the emotional, physical, and psychological growth and development for children.
One of the most notable case studies of the impact of touch deprivation on infants can be seen through various Romanian orphanages. Professionals who have observed certain Romanian orphanages have bared witness to how emotional and physical neglect can affect the infants physically, cognitively, emotionally, and otherwise.
In fact, three doctors profiled and assessed a Romanian orphanage in 2000 and found that many of the infants had profound delays to their cognitive function, motor development and language. They also noticed that the infants showed deficits in socio-emotional behaviors and experienced more psychiatric disorders. They also showed changes in the patterns of electrical activity in their brains, as measured by EEG.
Infants and developing children are not the only populations at risk for experiencing impacts to their emotional, physical, cognitive, and other systems of functioning due to chronic loneliness and touch deprivation. In fact, adults may be uniquely at risk compared to infants and children because they are more able to make decisions and actualize based on their emotions and experiences.
According to a 2018 national survey by Cigna, loneliness levels have reached an all-time high, with nearly half of 20,000 U.S. adults reporting they sometimes or always feel alone. Also reported in this study were results from the most recent U.S. census that showcased the rising number of individuals who live alone (more than a quarter of the population lives alone—the highest rate ever recorded).
Additionally, we’re continuing to see an increase in infidelity, decrease in marriages, decreases in number of children per household, decrease in volunteerism, and a consistent decrease in religious affiliation. In regards to coping mechanisms as a result of chronic loneliness and affection deprivation, adults who experience chronic loneliness and touch deprivation are more likely to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol to excess, more likely to suffer from obesity, and even experience lower than average rates of mortality.
It’s clear from the research that people are experiencing loneliness at higher rates and consequently suffering, but how can society address chronic loneliness and touch deprivation and how can those who are suffering find relief?
When it comes to finding a successful solutions and interventions to help those who experience chronic loneliness and touch deprivation, there is a lot to unpack and take into consideration. To start, loneliness can be tricky to develop successful therapeutic treatment modalities for because there isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to understanding how loneliness occurs.
There’s a plethora of reasons why a person may experience chronic loneliness and there is often an underlying cause (such as trauma, adverse childhood experiences, mental or physical disabilities, and more) as to why a person is susceptible to chronic loneliness and touch deprivation (Novotney, 2019). In a study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Chicago, researchers found that the intervention that worked best to combat chronic loneliness was cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which was used to address maladaptive social cognition in children, adolescents, and adults who claimed to experience prolonged feelings of loneliness.
The researchers theorized that CBT was successful for many of chronically lonely patients because the modality empowered them to face their self-esteem and worth and deal with any negative thoughts about who they or other perceived them. In regards to non-clinical methods to combatting loneliness, researchers found that adults who participate in community and social group activities such as sports teams, specialty clubs, activism communities, and other group settings, experience positive mental health effects and reduced feelings on loneliness.
When talking about the importance of physical and emotional affection, it can help to think about loneliness in a similar context as hunger. Humans require a certain amount of caloric and nutrient intake to properly function and when those calories and nutrients are not met, one may experience hunger.
Humans may experience something similar when they go through chronic loneliness and touch deprivation. For most people, they require a certain amount of physical touch, human to human connection, and emotional affection. When people go for prolonged periods of time without touch or social connection, they can experience a hunger of sorts, only this hunger isn’t for food; it’s for intimacy (sexual or platonic) with another human.
Humans, for the most part crave connection and social interactions with others and it’s clear that mental, physical, emotional, sexual, and other forms of well-being suffer when these very important needs are not met. It’s important to remember that loneliness is not a permanent state of being. One who is feeling lonely can hopefully find catharsis in the fact that mental health communities bring awareness to the impacts of loneliness and there is always help out there for those who need and realize they deserve it.