The strain of isolation is like 'skin hunger'

The pandemic upended much of our normal way of interacting with others. Hugging loved ones and bonding over shared meals had to stop because of distancing protocols. Contributor Johnny Spence explores the emotional and neurological impact of touch deprivation, especially as it pertains to healthcare practitioners.

Neuroscience is only beginning to understand the impact of touch deprivation

The pandemic has upended vital interactions like hugging due to distancing protocols. Touch deprivation has an emotional and neurological impact we are only beginning to understand. (Shutterstock)

*This episode originally aired on January 14, 2022.

In the spring of 2021, in the midst of a Canada wide lockdown, composer and sound designer Johnny Spence sent out an open invitation: 

I'm looking for folks who are currently living with limited experiences of human touch. If you know anyone who has been living in a state of touch starvation (whether all encompassing, or a more mild situation), and would be interested in speaking about it please let me know…

Spence wanted to create space for these personal day-to-day reflections, to honour the hugeness of each small moment, and uncover the wisdom these moments hold. He wondered what these reflections could teach us — not only about how we cope through a pandemic, but how we relate to each other.

He received dozens of responses. And was particularly taken by the experience shared by healthcare professionals — people for whom touch is a crucial part of their work.

Frontline nurse Melanie Spence is in constant physical contact with vulnerable patients, but she feels the impact from the lack of meaningful personal touch. (Submitted by Melanie Spence )

Before the pandemic, social worker Sasha Adler would often be in close contact with the elderly people she was caring for. She would also be present with them as they were dying, providing comfort to them and their family members. Now much of her work takes place over video conferencing or over the phone. 

When she was present at a patient's last moments, she found it difficult not being able to reach out to those around her. 

"And not being able to touch them….not being able to do that, is a whole form of communication that's gone. There's a comforting touch that is, yeah, needed at that time. Which felt really, it was a bit like I ached a little bit not being able to do it. Yeah. So that was hard," Asher said.

"When people are vigiling... people will touch each other at the back of their necks. This sort of reassuring, acknowledging, touching, of people who are vigiling that I think it's weird to be in a room and not doing that."

Sasha Adler (right) is a geriatric social worker specializing in dementia care, palliative care, long-term care. The pandemic has disrupted the kind of touch she’s able to give and receive. She’s pictured with Andrea Filip (left), a physician assistant working with Taddle Creek Family Health Team in Toronto. (Andrea Filip)

Johnny Spence's sister Melanie Spence has been working as a frontline nurse for seven years. Throughout the pandemic she's been working as a community health nurse within Toronto's shelter system — working long hours providing intimate and crucial care for unhoused individuals.

"If touch is being defined by, like, human contact without considering the context I would be someone who's had a lot of it. But, if we're talking about touch in a context that's meaningful for me personally, then it has been very absent."

Johnny Spence's documentary Skin Hunger: Exploring Disembodied Touch in Healthcare Practitioners explores how the experience of touch affects an individual's sense of wellbeing and connectedness.

Other guests in this episode:

Rebecca Böhme is a neuroscientist specializing in touch. She's the director of the Böhme Lab at Linköping University in Sweden.

Trudy Rudge is a registered nurse and professor of nursing at the University of Sydney. With a background in anthropology, she specializes in embodied touch and the experience of healthcare workers.

Jacques MoraMarco is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine and academic dean at Emperor's College in Santa Monica. He's also co-founder of the International Sun Tai Chi Association.

Tiffany Field is the founder and director of the Touch Research Institute and a professor in the departments of pediatrics, psychology, and psychiatry at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

IDEAS contributor Johnny Mrym Spence is an artist who resides and creates in Tkaronto (Toronto). (Maddy Wilde)

* This documentary is lovingly dedicated to Moonga Chiimba. Original music by Johnny Spence with vocalists Mara Nesrallah and Alex Samaras.

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