As Coronavirus entered our lives, human contact made a sharp and harsh departure. Self-isolating, waving from a 2m distance and 'staying home' ushered in a new touch-free era designed to save a nation in the midst of a crisis.
Where once we took for granted simple physical interactions, such as a handshake before a meeting, embracing our family members or holding hands on a first date, now
the humble hug has become a gesture of the past.
While stress levels, unemployment and Covid-19 case numbers rose, our mental health declined and a yearning for the pre-virus comfort of tactility emerged. When it came to seeking help, an understandable hesitancy towards visiting hospitals or contacting GPs with 'less urgent' needs re-directed us towards a new wave of psycho-sensory therapies designed to soothe our anxiety. The twist? They're all about touching.
'After experiencing an intense period of lockdown and now needing to adhere to social distancing regulations, many people have had time to reevaluate what is important to them - with a particular emphasis on things that were once at their disposal,' confirms Creative Innovation Director at JWT Intelligence, Emma Chiu.
'A much overlooked area is the simple act of human touch, which on a human level offers comfort and relaxation. And according to scientists touch can reduce stress, help with pain relief and even speed up the healing process of injury.'
It's a pretty universal truth that hugging is considered pleasant, but in a post-Coronavirus world, hugging's status got bumped up from enjoyable to essential. As Chiu puts it, 'Touch has become a luxury necessity today.'
Hug it out
It's not just us being needy. Science shows that humans are genetically predisposed to require physical affection in order to feel happy and stable. 'This relates to our evolution from cave times when we could only survive as part of a tribe,' explains neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart. 'We huddled together for warmth at night and also used physical affection as a demonstration of love/family/community. Both of these - literal warmth and knowing you were part of the tribe - guaranteed safety and survival.'
Millennia later and thrust into the middle of a pandemic without the possibility of hugging our loved ones? Our old school genes are feeling less than adored. 'Many people are facing unprecedented levels of loneliness and lack of physical interaction and affection,' says Swart. 'If deprived of this, the brain starts longing for human touch. Our skin is our largest organ and there’s a map of all the nerve endings etched into our brains When these nerve endings are deprived of any interaction it tips off a cascade of neural pathways akin to unrequited love. The brain literally craves human touch as we would for food if we were starving.'
Touch over talking
Endorsed by Justin Bieber and wife Hailey, aka the current millennial thought leaders of choice, Havening and EFT Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique) are the latest psycho-sensory therapies to find popularity amongst the 'anxiety generation.'
Where more traditional therapy sessions might start with a conversation roughly along the lines of 'so how are you feeling today?', touch-based therapies take an (unsurprisingly) more hands-on approach to working on our mental health.
'I believe that mindset cannot be changed within the mind,' says Mindset Coach and EFT Tapping practitioner, Jackie Simek. 'When we’re exposed to bad experiences or traumas they create beliefs in the mind, but they live in the body, in the nervous system. So, for me, you can’t change the mind by just talking about it, you have to incorporate the body.'
Which is where tapping comes in. Not considered a mainstream therapy modality, tapping has found an audience amongst those who seek to expand on their existing treatments, or who have lost faith in them entirely during the pandemic. 'Right when Coronavirus hit I did some Zoom group sessions every other week for two months and a lot more people turned up to them that weren’t already in my circle.'
So what is it? Well, the clue's in the name. Based on Chinese medicine that asserts that different organs hold different emotions, tapping aims to engage suppressed feelings within your body. And when we say tapping, we mean literally tapping. Imagine a sing along of 'Heads, Shoulders, Knees And Toes' but in place of the repetitive lyrics and motions you announce a statement that sums up one of your stresses or feelings and you tap the corresponding area of your body.
'We start off with the side of the hand, it doesn’t matter which hand, and you start by saying a statement that always starts with "Even though..." and you put the problem after that and then the back end of the statement is supposed to be a neutral or positive,' explains Simek. 'The textbook end of the statement, which practitioners don’t necessarily use because it’s a little far flung (if you’re having anxiety attacks you’re really not going to say these things to yourself), is "I deeply and completely love and accept myself" but I mix it up more with phrases like "I honour where I am" or "I choose to have kindness and compassion towards myself."
Where you tap depends on what the statement entails. 'I'm worried what people think about me' might involve tapping the crown of your head, whereas 'I can't breathe properly' would be your chest. Feeling angry? You'll be tapping your abdomen, where your liver resides. Once you've said each statement and tapped each area accordingly, you start the cycle again. 'When you start applying the tapping to the different points, that sends a calming signal to your brain - it helps to reframe your thinking pattern,' says Simek.
Although EFT doesn't involve human contact with another person, in a time where World Health Organisation guidelines advised against regularly touching your own face, a therapy that encourages reconnecting with our bodies might just be what the alternative doctor ordered. 'Taking time to be grateful for how our bodies work can also reduce stress and anxiety,' advises Swart. 'There’s an exercise I call Body Gratitude which you can do in the shower or whilst moisturising that involves touching each part of your body from head to toe and thanking it for its action e.g. skin for protecting our physical boundary, belly for digestion, lips for tasting, feet for walking etc.'
Learning to appreciate our own bodies and how they can aid our mental health treatment is one thing, but what if we need more? As we slowly emerge from a season of isolation, could a combination of therapy and human contact treat our mental health more effectively than ever before?
Enter Havening. A combination of traditional talk therapy and massage, Havening is an alternative method for treating anxiety and depression. 'You are invited to recall the traumatic event that has impacted your life and encoded itself into your "thoughts, mood and behaviour"', explains Chinese Medicine Practitioner, Olivia Inge. 'The therapist then applies a gentle touch to the forearms, hands or face to disrupt the links to the traumatic memory.'
The aim? According to Dr Ronald Ruden who founded the technique after discovering EFT tapping in 2001, 'Using simple touch, we can release a hormone in the brain called GABA and at the same time create something called Delta, which causes individuals to become very relaxed and feel safe.'
As far as official results go, the global Havening website is careful not to guarantee any specifics, whilst Youtube videos of Havening practitioners can veer into the cult-esque. But, it could also be argued that human comfort can't be quantified in statistics or solved with a prescription. 'I have had patients arrive in my clinic feeling overwhelmed with emotions such as fear, anxiety, sadness, worry, anger, depression and they leave, post-massage, blissed out,' says Inge.
Whether it's all a lot of hype or actually the game-changing alternative therapy our anxiety needs, right now, our brains could do with being a bit more blissed out.
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