In utero we are hardly more than a bundle of cells before we get equipped with the vast and very enjoyable sense of touch. When researching embryology as a sensory enthusiast, it becomes clear that the very same cells which develop into our brain (neuro ectoderm) split off into surface ectoderm to cover our bodies – the skin and the brain has the exact same origin! (MacCord, K . 2013) If we wish to organize and calm the brain, we need look no further than skin deep.
Think about the organizing effect of a massage, foot rub, scalp treatment or hydrotherapy. It impacts our complete range of emotional and behavioral responses for a good couple of hours post-intervention. When we are organized on a sensory level, we are in control, on top of things, alert, reasonable, together. And we are able to work hard. These are crucial skills to master during times of distress and uncertainty such as presented by the covid19 pandemic, which is marching forth in full force towards a third wave of infections.
Research have highlighted the top 3 benefits of touch, and surprisingly it directly impacts performance in a work environment: 1) It inspires positive thinking and expands trust, 2) It reduces social anxiety and stress, and 3) It boosts the immune system and lowers blood pressure (Menges, S. January 2021). Three very beneficial advantages for overall health, wellness and productivity of employees.
If we look at the devastating effect covid19 has had directly on our tactile systems alone, it becomes clear that most of us are currently either experiencing sensory overload or sensory deprivation from a touch perspective. Sensory overload due to unpleasant or disorganizing touch input, elicits an adverse fight/flight/fright response. We are irritable, on edge, impatient, itchy and distracted. Ever-present masks and non-stop sanitizing are detrimental to the tactile system. If you have high thresholds for touch, you may be of the lucky few able to habituate to some extend to mask wearing, but if you have lower thresholds and are more sensitive, masks and sanitizers have in all probability driven you dilly. Dryness exacerbates any form of mild touch sensitivity, which has more than likely also pushed the tactile neutrals into overload (and it’s only mid-winter!).
On the opposite side of the spectrum, social distancing and no-touch policies have left the tactile system with very little pleasant and organizing sensory input. If we do not receive 12 firm hugs per day (this according to my wise widowed mom) we feel disconnected, unseen, and unloved. She is certainly trying to manipulate her daughter into visiting more often, although we know that a lack of oxytocin and serotonin (secreted when exposed to enjoyable touch) triggers depression, anxiety and stress levels. We are in dire straits if we live alone, without pets or children to flood our systems with feel-good hormones derived from touch. No fist pumps, no high fives, no side hugs, no awkward hugs, no shoulder squeezes, no accidental arm pats, nothing…
My mom advocates that positioning a towel around the body and pulling the edges into a firm hug have proven helpful, and in the meantime, I squeeze the air out of her whenever possible. Sleeping under a weighted blanket will also help, as well as diligently adding touch activities to your daily routine – splashy showers with lots of exfoliation, long hot baths with loofas and textured sponges, cooking and baking, gardening, swimming, self-massage techniques, and walking barefoot on grass. Your tactile score when taking the sensory profile analysis will prove helpful in guiding you along the choice of activities which will be most organizing to your system.
What does the tactile system pose for return to work policies? Tactile sensitives will be very hesitant to return to work with accompanying anxiety and perceived overreaction to colleagues coming into too close proximity or neglecting covid protocols. Tactile seeking individuals may alarm their sensitive colleagues with accidental touch or perceived carelessness regarding no-touch policies. Potentially a devastating source of conflict and misunderstandings amongst colleagues who have missed each other desperately. Understanding, awareness, knowledge and communication around the senses, different sensory profiles, sensory thresholds scores, and most importantly awareness around different thresholds for touch, are crucial and will establish trust instead of chisel away at it.
Prepare the office space with much decreased density (hot desk system with staggered work days), self-cleaning surfaces, infra-red anti-bacterial air-conditioning, and be sure to group individuals with similar sensory profiles together in the initial phases of returning to the office. This will ease the tension of transitioning back to the workplace, and communicate care towards workers – where, how and when it really matters.
Remember the brain-skin connection when suggesting return to work policies. Employees with organized tactile systems will outperform their overloaded counterparts. Assessing sensory profiles is a non-threatening and trust establishing exercise, and literally at the tip of your fingers if you are brave and scientific enough to listen to what the brain needs right now.
The three biggest advantages of Human Touch, Mendes S. January 2021. https://www.plushcare.com
The Embryo Project, MacCord, K. 2013/12/02. https://www.embryo.asu.edu