I was helping a friend celebrate his birthday this week. The 4 of us who attended this little outdoor soiree were diligently wearing our masks and keeping our distance.
When someone held up a camera to take a pic of the birthday boy, I jumped up and, without thinking went over to wrap my arm around him and snuggled up close for the camera. In that split second I completely forgot that touching was a risk to both of us.
I lurched back, apologizing profusely for my momentary lapse.
“When was the last time someone touched you?” I asked him…
“It’s been 6 months,” he said, looking shocked at hearing his own words.
Something so natural as touching a friend in a happy moment has been taken away from us, unless we’ve joined in a pod with one or more equally cautious others. One of life’s great pleasures is suddenly dangerous to ourselves and to those we long to touch.
My hairdresser this week remarked at how many people told her she was the first person to touch them in 6 months. When she asked about the last time they were hugged, they could all recount the time and place in great detail.
A simple touch, a pat, a hand on the shoulder, triggers instantaneous changes in our bodies. The first thing that happens is our brain produces oxytocin.
Studies have shown that oxytocin makes us feel more generous, more empathetic and nurturing, more collaborative, and more grateful.
Gratitude stimulates the release of other feel-good hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin, while reducing stress hormones, such as cortisol and norepinephrine. These neurochemical changes make you feel happier and less stressed. We now understand through science that physical touch can lessen depression and anxiety, boost your immune system, and even relieve pain.
It’s not surprising then that I’ve noticed how gratitude is present in my life more than ever, not just because of bonding hormones, but because I now see that something so natural as reaching out and touching someone can be taken from me.
When I lie in bed with my partner these days, I snuggle up close to his warm body. I’m more aware of my privilege to get close to someone. I stop for hugs more often, and I let them linger so I can feel the goodness of that hug flow through my brain and nervous system.
I say thank you more often these days for any physical contact. Holding hands, massaging shoulders, TV cuddling. I’m more aware of all of it. It’s no longer something that I take for granted, or even feel entitled to. Now it feels more like a blessing.
My birthday friend is not the only person I know who is going it alone because of COVID 19.
Another single friend told me he was purchasing a weighted blanket to help him sleep more soundly. Lying under 15-20 lbs. of pressure calms us. And not surprisingly, just like a hug, or any other kind of welcome touch, it too produces Oxytocin.
Thanks to the research developed around Autism and Sensory Processing Disorders, we understand that gentle pressure on the body reduces anxiety and calms our central nervous system.
Couples can find themselves in the same predicament as their single friends.
It’s not uncommon for long-term partners to let non-sexual touching fall by the wayside somewhere along their relationship road.
They sit in separate chairs to watch TV together. They go to bed at different times. They hold their kid’s hands rather than their partner’s. Even touches of comfort or condolence become awkward.
It’s not surprising then, that intimacy suffers if touch is only given as a bid for sex.
If you’re in a domestic relationship, think of all the touch experiences you can add to your life with your partner. Rather than the occasional side shoulder hug, or a pat on the back, here are some new ways we can invite touch into our day-to-day lives:
1. Extended Hugging
At least once a day, hug someone for 20 seconds. (It doesn’t sound long until you do it). It takes 20 seconds for your hormones to really kick in with the Oxytocin, so let go into the hug.
Start to take a few deep breaths together and just hold on in a relaxed way. When one of you initiates the release, separate and say thank you. Your brain chemicals will do the rest.
Every women (and many men) knows what it’s like to get a facial. Pull out the facial creams from the back of your closet or even better, learn to make your own with ingredients like honey, milk, oatmeal and steam. We all loved to be pampered, and Lord knows we can use it.
3. Sensual Wrestling
Touching doesn’t always have to come in a tender, loving form. It can come with tension, pressing, pulling and pushing. Moving energy is important when we’re stressed and feeling depolarized from our partners. Make agreements about boundaries, like sore shoulders or tender knees. Keep in mind that bigger bodies can easily overpower. Then get down on the carpet and let loose.
When was the last time you booked out 15 minutes to put on the tunes from your teens and dance your heart out. Not knowing how to dance is no excuse. You know each other well enough to lose some face with awkward dance moves. Hold onto each other and let the music move you.
5. Partner Yoga
Leaning into another body for support and stretching can feel soooo good. Slow, conscious movement together creates trust. Just like sensual wrestling, we can play with the polarity of leading and following. Google “partner yoga for beginners.”
6. Sensation Meditation
Just for fun, take turns giving each other unusual sensory experiences using different objects from soft to scratchy, hot to cold. Blindfold the recipient so they don’t know what to expect. Wake up each other’s skin receptors and invite them out to play.
If you don’t already own one, buy a massage table and treat each other to weekly full-body sensual massage. Rather than a bed where massage can morph into a few minutes of sexual foreplay, a massage table sets the scene for an extended touch experience, where partners take turns giving and receiving. You don’t need to go to massage school to send your partner into sensory bliss. Google “couples massage for beginners,” and let your fingers to the talking.
8. Shower/Bathe Together
If you have the space to both get under some running water, take turns soaping each other down. Let you partner, shampoo your hair and wash your body. Let go of control for a while, and be a baby again, right down to the towel drying.
9. Get Creative
Talk about more ways to touch each other.
Every couple is different. There’s no gold standard for touching. Just make it part of your relationship conversation, knowing that it’s an important part of staying intimately connected and sexually polarized.
And whether you’re partnered or single, find ways to give and receive touch.
Ask for it, pay for it, give your body what it naturally needs to stay balanced, calm, and connected.
This post was previously published on Love Sex and Desire.
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