I Finally Got Over My Phobia Of Touch. Then, COVID-19 Hit.


Halfway through my semester of Western Massage 1 in 2015, I walked into class 15 minutes late. Everyone I knew was already paired up to practice massaging each other’s legs. A guy named Ron, a personal trainer with muscles braided like challah and a handsome smile, looked relieved when he saw me and asked if we could work together. The idea of undressing and being caressed by a man I didn’t know seemed risky. I was squeamish enough doing that with women. But I didn’t want to come off as prudish, so I said okay.

How to Feel: The Science and Meaning of Touch

I had enrolled in massage class at the Pacific College of Health and Science as part of my research for a book on the sense of touch, but also to help heal my own aversion. Ever since childhood, I’d never been at ease throwing my arms around someone or holding their hand when they’re upset. I was hoping that touching strangers in the course would help me get over whatever I feared. Ron held a sheet over my body as I wriggled out of black sweatpants, a Pacific College T-shirt, and a bra. I hadn’t shaved in a week, so I cringed as he uncovered my right leg. He felt me tense up and placed his hands gently on my lower back. It was sweet of him, and it made me question what I was so afraid of, especially in a roomful of people. Why had I come to equate any touch, particularly a man’s, with danger? As Ron continued, I calmed myself by recognizing he was just a student learning a lesson; my body may as well have been a textbook. Soon I fell asleep on the table.

Why had I come to equate any touch, particularly a man’s, with danger?

I’ve been thinking about that day recently, as I’ve heard the different ways people predict we’ll behave when the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us. Some think we will come out of this period valuing human contact more than ever, and envision a magical time when we’ll give hugs to strangers. It’s appealing to hope that tough times will push us to cling to each other, but what massage school taught me is that our unconscious scripts about touch can make us override this instinct, especially after long periods of keeping our distance.

Touch is a basic need when we’re babies, but many of us leave it behind as we get older. One reason is introversion, a personality trait some experts believe is likely innate. Babies who grow up to be introverted adults tend to be highly reactive when they are young. Reactive infants and children can be sensitive to every sight, sound, smell, and touch, and they need to retreat inward to process their feelings. Over time, this could make them more hesitant to reach out to others. But temperament is only part of the puzzle: Upbringing also matters. If when we cried as babies, our parents were responsive to our needs, this created a positive feedback loop, making us more likely to seek the comfort of others.

sushma subramanian

The author giving her 6-month-old daughter a massage.

Courtesy of Sushma Subramanian

I was an extremely reactive kid, a natural-born introvert. I threw a fit the first time my feet touched a sandbox. A family trip to Disneyland turned into a nightmare for everyone involved because I was afraid of everything I saw. I come from a stoic family—let’s just say we’re not huggers—so I decided that rather than reaching out for help, I should handle my emotions on my own. My father noticed. He joked that I was a “touch-me-not”—a type of plant that folds in on itself when stroked—because I would pull away when he came too close. Neither of us understood then that what I was actually rejecting was my need for physical affection.

In massage school, I started peeling back those layers. Each week, we learned new parts of a basic full-body massage: how to rub the back, then the legs, then the front of the body. As the semester progressed, the sensations of my body became more salient: I wondered how long my breathing had been shallow, and the muscles in my neck so tight. With more awareness, I got better at telling my massage partners where my problem areas were. We took turns giving and receiving massages, asking for permission to continue and to see if we were applying proper pressure. For the first time, I was requesting the kind of touch I wanted. In this safe space, where I was engaging in touch without any of the interpersonal dynamics that can make it scary in the real world, I learned that it didn’t make me soft, needy, or dependent to enjoy being touched by another person. I also started to rethink all the messages I’d absorbed over the years that made me even more touch-averse. In my mind, touch could be a sign of coercion. I thought men only touched women when they wanted sex; that people who were showy with affection were inauthentic.

For the first time, I was requesting the kind of touch I wanted.

By avoiding touch, I hadn’t let myself appreciate how biologically beneficial the presence of another person can be. Kory Floyd, PhD, a professor of interpersonal communication at the University of Arizona, coined the term skin hunger to describe what can occur when we lack affectionate touch. In a 2014 study, he found people who lack this type of touch experienced more loneliness, depression, anxiety, and immune disorders. Touch also contributes to personal connection. We tip waiters more who briefly touch us (just two seconds—otherwise the tips start to decrease), and teachers who gently touch their students are better at coaxing them into solving math problems. A 2010 study published in the journal Emotion analyzed 30 NBA teams during the 2008–09 basketball season and found that the number of early-season high fives, half-hugs, and fist bumps could predict cooperative behavior. Through touch, the teams performed better, both as individuals and as a group.

My massage classmates and I bonded faster than any group I’d been part of in years. They made me realize how much I’d wanted the warmth of others. With time, even outside of school, I was able to express the desire for connection I had always hidden. I initiated hugs with friends, and, in my work as a journalism professor, comforted students who came to me with problems. By allowing myself to touch people more—and letting myself express how it made me feel—I became more aware of my need for physical contact. Massage school was the exposure therapy I needed to overcome the emotional and physical awkwardness that had plagued me.

During this pandemic, it can feel like there’s an immediate risk to physical contact. What we shouldn’t forget is that there may be another type of danger in keeping our distance. In a study conducted this April at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, about 60 percent of 260 people surveyed said they’d experienced touch deprivation during this time of social isolation—a feeling that was associated with stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep disturbance, and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Even though many of us didn’t engage in a lot of touching before the quarantine, we can feel its loss more acutely when we can’t have it, says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the university’s Touch Research Institute and lead author of the study. Which makes this a good time to reconsider its importance: “Hopefully now we’ll appreciate that it’s critical for our health,” Field says. As we keep our distance, we could spend some time reminding ourselves how touch makes us feel: the pleasure of a loving embrace from a partner, roommate, family member, or pet, or even from rolling tennis balls up and down the soles of our feet. Our need for touch is easy to ignore, but it’s important to our personal and social health. If we truly want to be more connected to one another when this is over, we first need to get in touch with ourselves.

This article appears in the October 2020 issue of ELLE.

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