By: Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Director of Training and New Hampshire Operations
At the end of a testing session last week, my young client and I stood looking at each other through the large glass window of our contactless, adjoined testing rooms. Our hands were newly washed; the fresh scent of antibacterial wipes emitted from the tables; and our face coverings were in place. And while looking at one another from our respective bubbles, inside this necessarily sterile setting, my client looked me in the eye and asked: “Can I hug you?”
The question hung in the air for a moment. In the 15 years that I have worked with children, I have rarely hesitated when a child asks me this. But there we were, mid-pandemic, in this brief, perhaps imperceptible, moment of uncertainty.
One thing I have become keenly aware of since starting to see family and friends for socially distanced visits is how much I, and my children, have to consciously fight the physical urge to embrace the people we love. The urge is palpable. But where does this come from?
There is a great body of research demonstrating the importance of physical touch, particularly hugging. Hugs are not just a simply a way of demonstrating your love or support for someone, but hugging actually causes physiological changes within the body. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, reduce, and the nervous system slows down. Oxytocin – a hormone integral to bonding – is released, increasing closeness and affection. Over time, close physical contact results in improved brain development, heart health, emotional health, relationship patterns and immune function.
In many ways, physical touch is a basic human need that must be met. Individuals who are deprived of these experiences, particularly early in life, can experience detrimental effects. Fortunately, some of these effects can be mitigated once opportunities for closeness are offered. As such, our bodies and brains never fully give up on the urge for closeness, even after long durations of it being unmet. And this urge has a name – skin hunger.
Most people have felt skin hunger at some point – a driving urge for human contact and connection. This may come after a particularly stressful day at work, an argument with a friend or just a general feeling of loneliness. In times of uncertainty, distress or instability, the human need for closeness increases. And yet, for so many who are enduring the COVID-19 pandemic, closeness is the exact thing that they are being deprived of. Even when we are lucky enough to still have access to our families, or perhaps a small group of close friends, our emotional needs are high. Physiologically, psychologically, we need more hugs.
The good news is, there are things that you can do to meet this need:
- Consciously make an effort to hug those you can, and do it more often than typical.
- Snuggle up with your dog, your cat or other pet of choice.
- For those who live alone and do not have pets, a weighted blanket, warm bath or hugging a pillow can simulate the effects of human touch.
- Maintain social connection through video chat, phone calls and socially distanced visits. Interpersonal contact without hugging is better than no contact.
- Be careful to not accidentally over-associate hugs or touch with danger. Coronavirus will eventually be managed, but training our children to fear closeness could have enduring, negative effects. Choose words wisely, teaching pragmatic, unemotional caution, not fear.
About the Author:
Dr. Angela Currie is a pediatric neuropsychologist at NESCA. She conducts neuropsychological and psychological evaluations out of our Londonderry, NH office. She specializes in the evaluation of anxious children and teens, working to tease apart the various factors lending to their stress, such as underlying learning, attentional, or emotional challenges. She particularly enjoys working with the seemingly “unmotivated” child, as well as children who have “flown under the radar” for years due to their desire to succeed.
To book an evaluation with Dr. Currie or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician in the referral line.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Londonderry, NH, Plainville, MA, and Newton, MA serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (603) 818-8526.