CMU Psychologist Studies Effects of Isolation During The Pandemic

Jun 15, 2020

Marlo Engels describes herself as an "innate hugger."

"Having to restrict myself physically and emotionally from hugging someone has not been easy,” said Engels, who lives with her cat in Highland Park. “There were several days that I spent pretty much horizonal on the couch or horizontal in bed, and just couldn’t deal with the day.”

It's entirely possible that the lack of touch due to physical distancing requirements is to blame for Engels' listlessness. When someone receives affectionate touch, oxytocin and other hormones are released, which reduce stress. 

When Engels spoke with WESA in early May, Allegheny County was still in the red phase of COVID-19 reopening. Engels said she'd had no physical contact with another person for 48 days.

“Whether it’s in passing with coworkers, with friends, just being out in the community by accident bumping into somebody. Even a stranger, that’s physical contact,” she said.

Carnegie Mellon University psychologist Brooke Feeney, who researches relationships and the effects of physical contact, said there’s evidence that humans brains have evolved to detect socially relevant touch.

“Touch communicates that you're valued and accepted by someone. It's a salient reminder that you're ...  loved and cared for, and it indicates that you 're included in a social group,” she said.

Feeney said research shows that affectionate touch buffers pain and stress better than other forms of support, helps couples navigate conflict and makes people more willing to embrace new challenges.

To understand the how social and physical isolation is impacting everyone, Feeney is currently surveying residents of China and the United States.

“We ask questions about the core relationship connections have and how those are being affected by the pandemic,” she said. “We’re also asking about more peripheral social contacts.”

Feeney said she hopes the research will uncover better behavioral health interventions and coping strategies for dealing with periods of physical isolation.