How the Coronavirus Could Be Affecting Our Tactile System, and How to Handle It

Strange times. We could not have foreseen this, although there are many folks saying that the writing has been on the wall for some time now. Nonetheless, here we are. At home. Many of us continuing to shelter-in-place, or at the very least (and hopefully), operating in some socially-altered capacity. Like it or not, our lives and how we interact with others is altered for the foreseeable future. We know firsthand the social, economic, and emotional tolls that this is taking, and can imagine (for many of us, anxiously), what effect this may have for us in a longer-run worst-case-scenario type of way. But beyond social, economic, and emotional tolls, what does this mean for our central nervous system? More specifically, our for our tactile system?

What do you mean, our “tactile system”? 

Our tactile system is our sense of touch, and stimulation of it is critical to our brain’s development and function. When functioning well, our tactile system senses, measures, and modulates environmental stimulation including pain, temperature, light touch, and pressure. Sensory receptors in our skin carry messages up through different spinal tracts, and to our brain. Here the information is made sense of, or modulated, for an appropriate motor response. A very basic example of this loop is touching a hot surface, like a stove. Our skin perceives the heat, sends the signal up to our brain, and we withdraw our hand in a matter of a second or two. Ideally, we store this information in our memory, in order to avoid it happening again. 

Our tactile system helps us to connect with others. When our system is functioning well, we can handle, perceive and accept socially/emotionally appropriate touch well. Hugs, handshakes, high fives, pats on the back are all accepted and integrated well. We can tolerate having our hair cut, our nails trimmed, our face washed, and a variety of textures of clothing (even tags) and yes, food textures and temperatures. Furthermore, with a well functioning tactile system, we don’t need or seek out excessive touch input, and we can recognize (by feel) when we have food on our face, and if our clothing is on backwards. 

Hmm. This does not sound like me, my child, my partner….why is that?

Well, there may not be one nice neat and tidy answer for this.

First of all, there could be sensory processing differences. Even at birth, some of us were born being…a little different. For example, after being brought home from the hospital, my mother panicked as she tried to bathe me, and I screamed as though I was being very threatened in a much more severe way. My mother, 24 at the time and me being the first born, was at a loss. She called the nurse, who gave her the very sensible advise to “put a t-shirt on her”. And so, my mother put a t-shirt on me in the bath, and I was fine. I went on to have a number of tactile sensitivities that would confound my mom–I was very sensitive to having my hair brushed, face washed, and–heaven forbid–a wrinkle in my sock could send me into a severe meltdown that would leave me to go sock-less many times. Conversely, some people cannot get enough of tactile input. These folks love messy play, and often times would just assume be covered in paint, mud, shaving foam, etc. These are two responses that are on different levels of a spectrum. 

Secondly, we have made a lot of adaptations to the materials that our skin is constantly in contact with. We are the generation of the yoga pant, stretchy, tag-less clothes. We have soft polo shirts and stretchy jeans. Our towels are soft and fluffy. We are not used to the harsher fabrics–even regular denim–of decades past. Many of us choose fabrics that can move, stretch, and feel good in–both at home and work. Now, for many of us who have been working from home with the onset of the virus and shelter-in-place, the outfit is one and the same. Loungewear is a daily thing, and I have seen an uptick in marketing for this type of clothing. 

Thirdly, trauma. Yes, I know that this is becoming a more readily discussed topic, and even buzz word of our times, but that is because research is showing us just how much trauma can affect our brain function. Trauma can be acute (one time occurrence), chronic (sustained abuse patterns), or complex (multiple factors, situations/occurrences). And then there is perceived trauma. This is sometimes referred to as “little ‘t’ trauma”, and could occur for a child who has been lost for 2-3 minutes in a grocery store, as one example. Children who have difficulty with separation from parents experience their own form of trauma every time they have to be dropped off at school. Now, I understand that this is a big claim, and I am in NO WAY accusing parents of traumatizing their child intentionally at a school drop off. I am just trying to illustrate different ways to measure and identify terms of trauma. We hold onto trauma in our bodies, in our cells. It can affect the way our brain works. Including how our tactile system responds to non-threatening touch, namely flight, fight, or freeze. 

To clarify, the flight, fight or freeze response is not strictly reserved for a person with a history of trauma, but it is a primitive brain response to keep us out of danger. Children with sensory sensitivities or sensory modulation issues can have this response without a history of trauma, as well. 

Some people speculate that the pandemic has a very high chance of creating trauma for many people. Here is a link from Psychology Today that is illustrating what could potentially happen and how to take care during this time. 

(For more information on types of trauma that children can experience, click here. This is a link to look at for how you can help children who have experienced trauma.)

So…how does this pandemic play into our tactile system, and what can we do to help our kids and ourselves? 

So, now specifically for the tactile system; think about how much tactile information children are exposed to in a typical school day. Bumping into classmates, standing close in line, hugs/high fives from friends and teachers, sitting in cozy spaces or at least on a rug or carpet squares, PE class, art class, classroom activities, circle time, outdoor play, organized sports.  And more!

During the pandemic, we are washing hands more than ever (which is great for tactile seekers, and not-so-great for tactile avoiders), but we are also now more cautious. Cautious of touching surfaces, of touching (and even getting too close) to others. There is talk (even advice from Dr. Fauci) of making the social handshake obsolete when we return to our new normal. As we have been dealing with this in the US for a couple of months now, many of us are beginning to wonder just what things might look like in our world, moving forward. There is little certainty at the moment, which plays on our anxiety, for sure. There are things that we can do to help our tactile systems (and nervous system function during this time). 

Suggestions for tactile activities for those you are isolating with:

  • Cuddle time. Set aside time to be extra cuddly with your children, your partner. Think about massages: foot rubs, shoulder rubs, hugs. 
  • Baths are great for the tactile system. You can add in Epsom salt (safe for children over age 4 years due to the magnesium content). 
  • Messy play! Finger painting, play with shaving foam or soap, cooked and cooled pasta play, sandbox/kinetic sand, cornstarch and water in equal parts (beware–very messy, and great!), dry rice or bean bins to hide and find toys in.
  • Skin stimulation. Use of textured washcloths, loofahs, or silicone scrubbers to clean body in the bath or shower. 
  • Different textured soaps–foam, slime, salt or sugar scrubs–great for all of the hand washing!
  • Weighted blankets. This actually stimulates the proprioceptive (positional sense) part of the nervous system as well as the tactile system, and it can help people to feel more grounded and safe during this time. 
  • Earthing/Grounding. There has been more awareness for this movement in the past few years. This is, specifically, walking barefoot on the ground, and lying on the ground to gain benefits of the earth’s electric energy. More information is here on earthing. 

Suggestions for other ways to help nervous system stay regulated, and to release stress:

  • Exercise. Children: get outside and play! Run, walk, bike with your kids. Dust off that mini trampoline, build outdoor structures for play, invest in that cool geo-dome. Adults: Daily exercise is highly recommended. 30-60 minutes of walking, hiking, biking, jogging, yoga, and/or strength training are all great things to do. With the opportunity of more time on our hands, take advantage of continuing (and perhaps expanding) your routines, and discovering a potential new hobby.
  • Sleep. Children: even though in-person school is on hold, make sure your kids are getting enough sleep for their age. This is a good list for sleep recommendations for children of different ages. Adults: Try to get at least 8 hours a day. This can be challenging for those experiencing anxiety, and can be a little too easy for those experiencing depression. Please be gentle and kind to yourself. If struggling to sleep, you may consider supplements such as 5 HTP, melatonin, lemon balm tincture, GABA, and/or magnesium (consult with your healthcare provider, please to make sure that these are safe for you, especially if you are taking prescription medications, are pregnant/nursing, etc). If you are getting too much sleep, try adding in some gentle exercise daily. 
  • Food. Children: Eat as many well balanced meals as possible, focusing on fresh food and limiting foods with dyes and preservatives. Trader Joe’s products avoids artificial food dyes, and frozen foods have limited preservatives. Sneak in extra fruit (and leafy veggies!) with smoothies. Adults: Eat well, making sure to take in good amounts of vitamin c and citrus (lemon/lime water) for immunity. Eat as much fresh food as possible, and look to expand your cooking abilities. Limit alcohol, sugar consumption. These have a quick-fix effect, but can be damaging over the long run. 
  • Meditation. Children: Mindfulness can be taught to children. You can start with the idea of keeping still during a long breath. Schools have been incorporating mindfulness and meditation during the day, so ask your child if they learned how to do it in school. Adults: Daily meditation can help to build the connections between your amygdala (small alarm center of the brain) and your prefrontal cortex (thinking, reasoning). What this means is, that with regular practice, although you still may react initially to news/events/situations, your resilience and recovery time will improve. See more effects of meditation here.
  • Journal. Children and Adults: There is just something about the act of putting pen to paper; specifically, handwriting has a specific effect on the brain. Also, there is evidence that journaling can promote good mental health. Get in the habit of writing a little down every day. I suggest that you have 2 journals: one for your anger/anxiety, and another for gratitude and envisioning how you would like the world to look like in the coming months, years. 
  • Psychotherapy. Children: If your child had been receiving support, continue with telehealth sessions, if available. If your chilld seems significantly more anxious, and is experiencing distress, reach out  for support. Adults: If you are currently receiving talk therapy with a counselor, social worker, or psychologist, continue your work. If you are struggling and need help, here . Stay connected with others. Reach out on the phone, continue to FaceTime, Zoom, Google Hangout/Meet. Do something to help a friend or neighbor. Check in on your loved ones. The act of reaching out to lend a helping hand can benefit not only the person receiving the help, but the person offering it. 
  • Limit Media Consumption and Screen Use. Children: As challenging as this is right now, try to limit your child’s consumption of screens as much as possible during the day. The benefits far outweigh the challenges, as excessive screens can have such a negative impact on behavior. Adults: Be mindful of your sources, and limit consumption during the day. Too much can keep us in an overwhelmed, fear based state of mind that affects our nervous system negatively. 
  • Forgiveness. Adults: Start with yourself. Things are far from “perfect”, and never were in the first place. Forgive yourself for making mistakes, not handling things the way you could have, for not being “enough”. Forgive others during this time, if you are able to, as well. Most folks are functioning in a sub-optimal way at some point during any given day, week, month since the pandemic has reared it’s head.  You free yourself when you can forgive others. This is also a wonderful practice to model for your children. 
  • Gratitude. Children and Adults: This one might feel like a cliche, but it is important! Count your blessings on a daily basis. This may be especially good to do right before bed, especially if you have trouble with sleep. This is also great to do around the dinner table in the evening with your kids. 

All in all, take care of yourselves. Offer support often to others, and seek out support as much as you need to. This situation can bring on a lot of fear. When the fears come up, stay grounded and try to bring yourself back to the present moment. Take a barefoot walk. Get cuddle time with your kids. Breathe deeply. Know that this situation is temporary, as is everything.