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The pandemic problem tech can’t solve: Physical touch

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Gail Sideman can’t remember the last time she hugged a loved one. She only knows it was likely a few months ago. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin resident says she’s stayed away from most people, resorting to “air hugs” when she’s seen her 20-year-old niece at a distance. The publicist and stage manager halted her personal and professional travel and hunkered down at home in March, only leaving to go to the gym, grocery store, or get some time outdoors.

“I’m a hugger and a physical person,” she said. “You definitely miss that.”

Sideman is one of the more than 34 million U.S. residents that live alone, according to latest numbers provided by the U.S. Census in 2018. Following the implementation of shelter-in-place and social distancing orders from cities across the nation, people living alone are experiencing a very different reality than the other 72% of people who live with family, roommates, or significant others. For people who been alone for about six months, the experience can be simplified to one word: isolating.

“I have to block those kinds of things out of my mind otherwise I wouldn’t get anything done,” Sideman said about her emotions. “But it does hit you at weird times—the loneliness, the isolation.”

Mental health experts say too much isolation can lead to a host of issues: depression, anxiety, post traumatic distress order. And as the pandemic has dragged on, keeping many people at home alone, mental health concerns are growing. The good news is there are ways to mitigate the negative effects of isolation partially thanks to technology. The bad news is for some people, those solutions may not be enough.

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David Spiegel, a Stanford University School of Medicine professor and director of the school’s Center on Stress and Health, said that physical touch often has soothing effects, as it lowers the stress hormone cortisol that can weaken the immune system. Touch also increases levels of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin—the hormones related to happiness. Just like a child often needs to be held to be soothed, adults often need human touch to be reassured. At a time when adults might be more stressed than normal, given the global pandemic, people who live alone are going without that reassurance.

“Let’s just be realistic: it’s a real loss. It’s a real need,” Spiegel said. “We’re social creatures, and our most intimate connections are physical.”

Isolation can be especially harmful for people with a history of substance abuse, mental illness, or trauma, mental experts say. For those people, being alone for extended periods of time can magnify or rehash old problems. And the effects may extend well beyond the end of the pandemic.

The pandemic’s mental health repercussions is an issue with which Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, the head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has been particularly concerned. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that about 40% of 5,470 adults surveyed said they were feeling adverse mental effects related to the pandemic and physical distancing, including anxiety and depression. The report also said that about twice as many people reported suicidal thoughts within a month’s time compared to the number of people who reported feeling that way during an entire year in 2018. Following the report, McCance-Katz released a statement, calling the findings “troubling but not surprising.”

“People who experience stress that’s unrelenting are at great risk for mental health problems,” she told Fortune. “And we know suicide attempts have gone up, and drug overdoses are up.”

But even people who are relatively healthy might find themselves grappling with the lack of in-person social interaction. Carlyn Mumm has been quarantining alone in Dallas for the past six months. The 32-year-old digital strategist said given that she’s not a touchy-feely person, she doesn’t really miss hugs or handshakes. Even so, she says she feels a loss.

“There’s a certain level of authenticity and ease you get that’s lost in a digital space,” she said. “It’s the lack of unspoken cues and the rigor that tech communication requires you to follow especially in large groups.”

Mumm said she misses the eye contact she might make with someone across the table—something that’s impossible to do in a virtual space. She said that because video chatting only allows for one person to speak and be heard at a time, it eliminates the possibility of spirited interruptions and side conversations. Tech solutions like Zoom and Google Meet just don’t feel the same, she said.

Though the nation’s health authorities continue to advise people from different households to maintain their distance, there are things people who live alone can do to stimulate the happy hormones that come from physical touch. And if people who live alone regularly engage in those activities, they may be able to offset the negative effects of isolation, said Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine who’s been studying the effects of the lockdowns during the pandemic.

“It’s vital to have our skin stimulated,” she said. “You’re going to save natural killer cells that kill bacteria and cancer cells.”

There are simple solutions: Self-massages, yoga, or even running or walking can stimulate pressure sensors that can set off a chain of events to change a person’s brain waves, blood pressure, and neurotransmitters, Field said.

Aline Zoldbrod, a Boston psychologist and sex therapist, says there are also tapping techniques, like a butterfly hug, people can perform on themselves to self-soothe. She also suggests using weighted blankets to create pressure on the body and thinking about previous hugs or reassuring touches to improve one’s emotional state. “You should be touching your own body,” she said.

For Gail, talking openly with her friends and colleagues about what she’s been experiencing has helped. But she says she’s eager for the day when she can hug her family and friends again.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

  • WHO chief warns the world: Don’t fall prey to COVID “vaccine nationalism”
  • What makes the latest coronavirus testing process, developed by Yale, so promising
  • Commentary: Why empowering frontline workers is a key element to a safe reopening
  • Urinals and toilets may spread COVID-19, adding fuel to the mask debate
  • Depression symptoms among the employed in the U.K. have more than doubled since the start of the pandemic