‘Massage breaks the pain cycle’: the return of touch – after almost two years without it

For many people, social distancing and lockdowns left them bereft of physical contact. Here, touch experts explain why it is so essential and what we lost in its absence

In a pandemic that has meant keeping 2 metres away from one another whenever possible, it appears that physical contact is beginning to return. Even handshakes are making a comeback: one poll found younger people were shaking hands again, although older generations are more uneasy about it. “We are wired to respond to emotional touch,” says Francis McGlone, a professor of neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University. “My analogy is that [touch is] like a vitamin – if we are depleted, there are consequences in terms of our physical health. I make the same argument about the C-tactile afferents – the nerve fibre that evolved in all social mammals to provide the reward associated with close physical contact. When the fibre is stimulated, it does a number of measurable things – it lowers heart rate and it lowers cortisol, the stress hormone.” It’s one reason, he says with a laugh, he believes so many people got pets during lockdown: “That’s the brain recognising ‘I need to touch something’.”

For the pet-less, touch-starved, skin-hungry among us, physical contact is a welcome thing. Even before the pandemic, we were living through a “crisis of touch”; perhaps the enforced distance of the past 18 months has made us realise how vital touch is after all. For the people whose jobs rely heavily on touch, it’s been a particularly difficult time. Here’s how they are navigating its return.

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