Touch, love, loneliness: what isolation does to us

Stay away from people because you love them - such an idea would hardly have occurred without the corona pandemic. But how long can people go without closeness and contact?

Soothing hug: Many people currently have to do without that. Experts advise expressing affection in the form of helpfulness or small gifts

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After all, we're all just apes too. And like little monkeys, babies and toddlers often only calm down when they sense their mother's closeness. Adults understand the language of touch just as well - after all, the skin is the largest human sensory organ.

Only: In the midst of the Corona crisis, people are currently staying away from loved ones, especially in old people's and nursing homes, people miss their families, their closeness and touch. What does that do to all of us - especially if a second wave of coronavirus infections breaks out?

Mothers of wire and cloth

How important touch is for us humans is suggested by the seemingly cruel experiments of the American psychologist Harry Harlow, which he carried out with little rhesus monkeys in the 1950s.

For the baby monkeys, the researcher had made a wire frame with a milk bottle and a "cloth mother" covered with terry cloth and fluffy cushions. Not surprisingly: the little monkeys clung to the "stuffed mother", lived on her, as it were - and were healthier than the baby monkeys with wire mother.

"That shows we need it, we are not that different from monkeys and rats," says Jürgen Margraf, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at the Ruhr University in Bochum. "We need touch."

Touch is vital

Touching someone - that is part of the human communication of feelings. "There are emotions-psychological experiments that have shown that people can recognize feelings such as love, gratitude, sympathy, anger, fear, and disgust, only when someone touches them," says developmental psychologist Simon Forstmeier from the University of Siegen.

The need for comforting or tender touch persists well into old age. And there is even research that shows that contact with aging is perceived as more and more pleasant. Through touch, people developed trust and felt more comfortable, explains Margraf.

"But you can't make it absolute." Because people could see into the future and recognize: other times will also come. Anyone who knows this can survive the non-contact period - for many months, he estimates. It depends on whether we perceive the stress as controllable.

Surviving crises together

"If you are isolated and locked away without knowing the reason, that would have consequences, but we know why and we do it voluntarily," explains the psychologist. "Then it's nowhere near as bad." On top of that, coping with common challenges and extreme situations increases self-esteem: "That has to be on the other side of the scale. When we have decisive experiences, it depends very much on how we process it - and what story we tell."

After all, children and adolescents did not have to do without family contact during the crisis, nor did older couples, says Forstmeier. "Unfortunately, what has been eliminated is the contact between adult children and their parents, who may put shopping in front of the door but cannot hug their parents. And the contact between grandchildren and their beloved grandparents."

If touch is a form of showing affection, there is a risk that this need will not be met. It has been shown that touch lowers the stress level - thanks to the hormone oxytocin, which is released in the brain when it is touched.

The five languages ​​of love

What is the solution? One can ignore all precautions and still touch. It depends on the individual risk profile of older people, explains Forstmeier. "But I see a second solution: If touch is no longer the language of affection, we should consciously use other languages ​​of affection. Because there are."

The American couple counselor Gary Chapman coined the term "five languages ​​of love" - ​​in addition to touch, these are honest recognition and expressions of gratitude, giving time, small gifts and helpfulness. You just have to know which language people are sensitive to: "Because that's where we differ."

Margraf sees a completely different risk of temporarily forced isolation, for example in the family: If children and parents are constantly together, they may react irritably. "After a few weeks you get mad," he speculates. Then there was the threat of irritable reactions - and possibly more violence.