Miss hugs? Touch forms bonds and boosts immune systems. Here’s how to cope without it during coronavirus



Claudio Furlan/Lapresse/Sipa USA

Michaela Pascoe, Victoria University; Alexandra Parker, Victoria University; Glen Hosking, Victoria University, and Sarah Dash, Victoria University

Don’t shake hands, don’t high-five, and definitely don’t hug.

We’ve been bombarded with these messages during the pandemic as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19, meaning we may not have hugged our friends and family in months.

This might be really hard for a lot of us, particularly if we live alone. This is because positive physical touch can make us feel good. It boosts levels of hormones and neurotransmitters that promote mental well-being, is involved in bonding, and can help reduce stress.

So how can we cope with a lack of touch?


Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Touch helps us bond

In humans, the hormone oxytocin is released during hugging, touching, and orgasm. Oxytocin also acts as a neuropeptide, which are small molecules used in brain communication.

It is involved in social recognition and bonding, such as between parents and children. It may also be involved in generosity and the formation of trust between people.

Touch also helps reduce anxiety. When premature babies are held by their mothers, both infants and mothers show a decrease in cortisol, a hormone involved in the stress response.

Positive touch can release oxytocin, which is involved in human bonding.
Shutterstock

Touch promotes mental well-being

In adults with advanced cancer, massages or simple touch can reduce pain and improve mood. Massage therapy has been shown to increase levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter (one of the body’s chemical messengers) involved in satisfaction, motivation, and pleasure. Dopamine is even released when we anticipate pleasurable activities such as eating and sex.




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Disruptions to normal dopamine levels are linked to a range of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression and addiction.

Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of well-being and happiness. Positive touch boosts the release of serotonin, which corresponds with reductions in cortisol.

Serotonin is also important for immune system function, and touch has been found to improve our immune system response.

Symptoms of depression and suicidal behaviour are associated with disruptions in normal serotonin levels.

But what about a lack of touch?

Due to social distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, we should be vigilant about the possible effects of a lack of physical touch, on mental health.

It is not ethical to experimentally deprive people of touch. Several studies have explored the impacts of naturally occurring reduced physical touch.

For example, living in institutional care and receiving reduced positive touch from caregivers is associated with cognitive and developmental delays in children. These delays can persist for many years after adoption.




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Less physical touch has also been linked with a higher likelihood of aggressive behaviour. One study observed preschool children in playgrounds with their parents and peers, in both the US and France, and found that parents from the US touched their children less than French parents. It also found the children from the US displayed more aggressive behaviour towards their parents and peers, compared to preschoolers in France.

Another study observed adolescents from the US and France interacting with their peers. The American kids showed more aggressive verbal and physical behaviour than French adolescents, who engaged in more physical touch, although there may also be other factors that contribute to different levels of aggression in young people from different cultures.

Maintain touch where we can

We can maintain touch with the people we live with even if we are not getting our usual level of physical contact elsewhere. Making time for a hug with family members can even help with promoting positive mood during conflict. Hugging is associated with smaller decreases in positive emotions and can lessen the impact of negative emotions in times of conflict.

In children, positive touch is correlated with more self-control, happiness, and pro-social skills, which are behaviours intended to benefit others. People who received more affection in childhood behave more pro-socially in adulthood and also have more secure attachments, meaning they display more positive views of themselves, others, and relationships.

Pets can help

Petting animals can increase levels of oxytocin and decrease cortisol, so you can still get your fill of touch by interacting with your pets. Pets can reduce stress, anxiety, depression
and improve overall health.

In paediatric hospital settings, pet therapy results in improvements in mood. In adults, companion animals can decrease mental distress in people experiencing social exclusion.

Cuddling with pets is therapeutic and may help ease the mental health effects of social distancing.
Shutterstock



Read more:
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What if I live alone?

If you live alone, and you don’t have any pets, don’t despair. There are many ways to promote mental health and well-being even in the absence of a good hug.

The American College of Lifestyle Medicine highlights six areas for us to invest in to promote or improve our mental health: sleep, nutrition, social connectedness, exercise, stress management, and avoiding risky substance use. Stress management techniques that use breathing or relaxation may be a way to nurture your body when touch and hugs aren’t available.

Staying in touch with friends and loved ones can increase oxytocin and reduce stress by providing the social support we all need during physical distancing.


This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.The Conversation

Michaela Pascoe, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Mental Health, Victoria University; Alexandra Parker, Professor of Physical Activity and Mental Health, Victoria University; Glen Hosking, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Victoria University, and Sarah Dash, Postdoctoral research fellow, Victoria University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus is stressful. Here are some ways to cope with the anxiety



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Louise Stone, Australian National University and Katrina McLean, Bond University

One of our patients was recently talking about her anxiety around the coronavirus epidemic. This woman’s stress was understandable. She had survived a serious infection with swine flu, but only with a prolonged stay in intensive care.

I guess we all walk on the edge of a cliff […] anything can happen to anyone at any time. We are never really safe. But people like me? Now we know the edge of the cliff is right there, and we can’t help looking down.




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7 science-based strategies to cope with coronavirus anxiety


While some people may be more susceptible to becoming seriously ill with the coronavirus than others, none of us are immune to the pervading sense of anxiety that has taken hold around the world.

For Australians in particular, this crisis has come immediately after a horror summer of bushfires, which took their own toll on our collective mental health.

But there are some things we can keep in mind, and some practical steps we can take, to keep coronavirus-related anxiety under control.

A tangible threat versus an invisible enemy

It hasn’t been an easy start to the decade. In the face of the summer’s bushfires, many of us contended with threats to our health, our homes and even our lives.

Even those not directly affected were faced with constant images of charred bushland, injured wildlife, and homes burnt to the ground.

The bushfires put a strain on our collective mental health, and it’s very likely some people are still struggling.

Natural disasters, though, are visible and tangible. There are things we can do to avoid the threat, manage the danger or mitigate the risk. We can see the smoke, check the app, buy an air purifier, prepare our homes. And despite the vivid images of floods, fires and cyclones, we know the storm will pass.

Epidemics are different. A novel epidemic is unknown, evolving and a global risk.

We are faced with a variety of information (and misinformation) online. Guidelines contradict each other, different states have different approaches, and experts disagree.

Meanwhile, infection rates climb as economies fall. We know we may contract the virus, and as yet we know there’s no vaccine to prevent it.




Read more:
You’re not the only one feeling helpless. Eco-anxiety can reach far beyond bushfire communities


While the bushfires united us, coronavirus seems to divide us

There’s an ugly side to ways we can deal with the stress of an unknown enemy like the coronavirus.

Some people blame potential carriers for their own illnesses, scapegoating people they see as high-risk. This is not helpful.

We also seek to manage our anxiety by trying to prepare ourselves and our families for the possibility of isolation or quarantine.

While this is reasonable to a degree, practices like stockpiling toilet paper and other goods can feed, rather than relieve, anxiety. Empty supermarket shelves can create panic, and further disadvantage people who might be living from week to week.

Epidemics isolate us from each other physically too, and this will only happen more and more.

So how can we put things into perspective?

We can take heart in knowing many people will develop only mild disease from the coronavirus.

There are of course vulnerable members of our community: those with compromised immune systems due to illness or age. We need to protect these people as a community by creating safe spaces for them to live, work and access health care, rather than fostering panic.




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Our greatest asset lies in our own bodies. We may not understand how to best protect ourselves, but our bodies are experienced managers of novel immune challenges, and they will manage the risk as effectively as they can.

Ultimately, our best chance at surviving this virus relies on nurturing our bodies: avoiding exposure through hand-washing and isolation where appropriate, eating well, exercising, managing chronic illnesses, and getting enough sleep.

The anxiety a pandemic generates is inevitable. At the end of the day, we all need to learn to live with a degree of risk we can’t avoid.

Practical strategies to keep anxiety at bay

The World Health Organisation has developed some practical tips for dealing the stress of this outbreak. Here are a few of them:

  • accept that it’s normal to feel sad, stressed, confused, scared or angry during an outbreak

  • find ways to talk about how you feel with others, especially if you are in quarantine

  • remember to keep an eye out for your children during this time, and for loved ones who already have mental illness. They may need help dealing with this added anxiety

  • if you feel overwhelmed, seek support from a health professional

  • don’t use smoking, alcohol or other drugs to deal with your emotions. Keep your body as healthy as possible by eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep

  • limit worry by limiting media exposure to a few trusted sources

  • draw on skills you have used in the past that have helped you to get through difficult times.




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If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Dr Wendy Burton, a GP in Brisbane, contributed to this article.The Conversation

Louise Stone, General practitioner; Clinical Associate Professor, ANU Medical School, Australian National University and Katrina McLean, Assistant Professor, Medicine, Bond University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to cope with extreme heat days without racking up the aircon bills



Even without air conditioning, there are still many things you can do to prepare for extreme heat and stay comfortable on hot days.
fizkes/Shutterstock

Emma Power, Western Sydney University; Abby Mellick Lopes, Western Sydney University, and Louise Crabtree, Western Sydney University

Summer in Australia is getting hotter. Extreme heat events, with daytime temperatures over 35 degrees Celsius, are becoming more common and we are getting more of these days in a row.

We all need to prepare ourselves, our homes and our neighbourhoods for hot and very hot days. Since 2016, the Cooling the Commons research project has been working with people living in some of Sydney’s hottest neighbourhoods to learn how they cope with heat.




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Discussion groups with residents across hotspots in Western Sydney, including Penrith, Cranebrook and St Marys, highlighted a wealth of things we can do to manage heat. We published some of the following tips in a recent flier.

Why can’t we all just rely on air conditioning?

Official advice for extreme heat is often to stay inside and turn on the air conditioning. While air conditioning can play a role, not everyone can afford it. Low-income and older households can be especially vulnerable to bill shock and are more likely to feel the impacts of extreme heat.




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There is also the risk that running air conditioners uses energy resources that contribute further to global warming. More immediately, hot exhaust air from air-conditioning units can make the local environment hotter. This means keeping one home cool can make it harder for neighbours to keep their homes cool and make being outside even more uncomfortable.

Air conditioning in private homes creates a cool refuge for only some. Unless those homes have an open-door policy on hot days, many of us will need to find other ways to keep cool. If you do have air conditioning, think about how you could share your air with those near you who might really need it.




Read more:
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Prepare before the heat hits

Shade is important for creating more comfortable living spaces.

Identify which parts of your home get the most afternoon sun in summer. Can you plant trees or vines, or move a pot plant outside the window to create a green screen? Can you attach awnings to shade the windows?

Low-cost temporary solutions can include attaching light-coloured shade cloth outside the window using removable hooks, or installing heavy drapes or blinds inside. Blankets or even aluminium foil are a low-cost creative way of keeping heat out.


Illustration by Thomas Baldwin, from Climate Risk? Climate Ready!, Author provided

Open up to let in cool air at night

Can you open the windows and doors overnight to let in cooler air? If you are concerned about security, look for options for locking the windows in an open position, or using flyscreens and security grilles on windows and doors.

A low-cost option to keeping flying insects at bay on hot nights is a mosquito net over the window or around the bed.


Illustration by Thomas Baldwin, Author provided

Use low-cost resources to prepare in advance.

Ceiling or portable fans are one of the best ways to cool your body when it’s hot. But remember fans don’t cool rooms, so turn off the fan when you leave the room or you’re just burning electricity.

Find ice trays and containers to freeze water – cake tins and storage containers are a good option. Putting these in front of a portable fan will mean the fan blows cool air.


Illustration by Thomas Baldwin, Author provided

Putting a wet face cloth on the insides of your wrists, around your ankles or on the back of your neck will bring down your body temperature. Hanging damp sheets in doorways or in front of a fan will help keep the temperature down – although the trick with the sheets won’t work if it’s a really humid day.

How to stay cool and comfortable on hot days

Morning is likely to be the coolest time of the day. Open up your windows and doors to let in the cooler morning air.

It’s the best time to be active – walk the dog, take the kids to the park, go for a swim. If possible, do your cleaning, cooking or outside work now. Plan meals that don’t require an oven.


Illustration by Thomas Baldwin, Author provided

Close up as it heats up.

As the day starts to get hot, close the house up – shut windows, blinds and curtains. This could be as early as 9am on really hot days. If you are heading out to work, do this before you leave home.

Closing internal doors can help to keep the heat in one part of your home. You need to close doors to any parts of the home that get hot before the day gets hot.

Stay hydrated.

Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Put a jug of tap water in the fridge and remember to top it up.

Don’t forget to move pet water bowls and day beds out of the sun. If you live in a dry area, it can’t hurt to put out extra water bowls for needy wildlife!

Find a cooling refuge.

If your home gets uncomfortably hot, find the closest cooling refuges in your neighbourhood. These are places where you can go to cool down. Good examples that won’t break the bank are the local swimming pool or library.


Illustration by Thomas Baldwin, Author provided

Some local councils provide lists of cooling centres on their websites.

Save air conditioning for when it’s most needed.

Try to save air conditioning for the hottest parts of the day. It will be most effective and cheapest to run if your home is well insulated and you’ve closed it up for the day.

Look after neighbours.

Remember to check on elderly or frail neighbours. Along with the very young, they are usually more affected by the heat and may need to cool down sooner than you do.

If your neighbours are in need, consider inviting them into your home to cool down. When it’s hot, let’s think of our cities as social commons rather than a collection of private spaces.


Illustration by Thomas Baldwin, Author provided



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When the heat is on, we need city-wide plans to keep cool


The Conversation


Emma Power, Senior Research Fellow, Geography and Urban Studies, Western Sydney University; Abby Mellick Lopes, Associate Professor, Design, School of Humanities and Communication Arts, Western Sydney University, and Louise Crabtree, Associate Professor, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A familiar place among the chaos: how schools can help students cope after the bushfires


Rachael Jacobs, Western Sydney University and Carol Mutch, University of Auckland

School will start on a somewhat sombre note this year. Some schools will still be shrouded in smog from the bushfires. Some students will be grieving the loss of property, animals or even family and friends. Some remain evacuated and others are part of the recovery effort.

In recent days, Australia’s education minister Dan Tehan highlighted the importance of schools supporting students in the aftermaths of the bushfires.

Announcing A$8 million for mental-health liaison officers and clinicians to work with schools and early childhood services in affected communities, Tehan said:

[…] child care centres, preschools, schools and universities are important community touchpoints that are helping families and children get back on their feet after the bushfires.

Even students not directly affected by the fires might be distressed by images they have seen or stories they have heard.

So, what can schools and teachers do to help students cope in the aftermaths of this crisis?




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You’re not the only one feeling helpless. Eco-anxiety can reach far beyond bushfire communities


A sense of control

Schools can provide a sense of familiarity, routine and security among chaos. Even if a school has been affected by fires, it’s important it still feel like school with familiar things such as books, desks and chairs, classes and lunch breaks.

But these same structures should, for a time, be more flexible than before. Time spent on activities might be shorter, the breaks a little longer and the pace a little slower. Providing options to share or respond in different ways gives students a sense of control in a world that, for a time, seemed out of control.

Schools are also supportive communities. Researchers who studied the experiences and the responses of schools in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, suggest it is important to provide opportunities for students to process their experiences in a safe and structured way.

Students should not be forced to share their feelings but can be guided in a calm manner that avoids further trauma. A teacher who provided help after Hurricane Sandy suggested teachers model calm and optimistic behaviour, acknowledging students’ distress but demonstrating constructive actions that provide hope for the future.

For example, creating a photoboard of communities coming together in recovery can be a powerful civics lesson. Or students could write letters of thanks to volunteers in a literacy lesson.




Read more:
Bushfires can make kids scared and anxious: here are 5 steps to help them cope


Creative activities are helpful for students to express their experience. This could be done through writing, drawing, painting, making things with their hands, moving to or creating music, singing, drama or photography.

Some older students may have controversial questions or opinions about climate change or the funding of emergency services. Teachers can lean into difficult conversations and allow for respectful debate.

Perhaps collate a reputable series of articles for students who want to know more.

‘A teaspoon of light’ project helped students deal with the trauma of earthquakes using drama.

Distracting children from going over things they find distressing is important too. There comes a time when teachers can gently move on from acknowledging students’ fears or sadness to another activity – especially calming ones such as relaxation exercises, listening to a story or quiet music.

Following the 2010 Canterbury earthquakes in New Zealand, researchers suggested teachers help students regulate their emotions with relaxation exercises or using play, and re-frame their thoughts more positively such as by thinking of happy things like their pets.

Traumatised children

Young people who have been injured, or have suffered a major loss (a loved one or a home) might have difficulty adjusting to returning to school. Those who have experienced prior trauma or have a history of mental illness are more at risk of adjustment difficulties.

It helps if schools can brief teachers on signs of trauma and ways to notice unusual behaviours, such as becoming quiet and withdrawn or appearing nervous and fidgety. Some students might cry, some might get angry and some might even laugh inappropriately. Some might be frightened by sudden noises.

There is no blueprint for how or when people might respond to their experiences. Students might appear fine initially but later display unusual behaviours. With younger children, this might be nighttime (or even daytime wetting), clinginess, restlessness or tiredness.

Older children might display hyperactivity, aggression, withdrawal, lethargy or panic. Teenagers could also have poor impulse control or show a loss of interest in friends and activities. Students might have arrived at school distressed, but over time gain control of their feelings, or they might take it all in their stride.

Research shows most students who have experienced trauma as a result of natural disaster adjust in a year or two but might have ups and downs depending on other factors in their lives, such as family relocation or financial difficulties. But up to 20% of these young people might have prolonged symptoms that stop them engaging in or enjoying everyday activities.

These students will need professional help beyond what teachers can provide. This is why keeping in touch with parents is essential. If necessary, teachers and parents should agree on strategies that will support students at home and school.




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Eventually, a school in recovery will settle into the routine of a new normal, in which students become a little more used to their changed lives and continually changing world – although they may have occasional emotional or behavioural wobbles.

And it is still OK to have fun. Playing games, re-reading a favourite story or watching a video can help lift the mood. Dancing or getting outdoors can release energy and tension. Talking about the future and discussing what has been learned from the experience is also part of healing and moving forward.The Conversation

Rachael Jacobs, Lecturer in Arts Education, Western Sydney University and Carol Mutch, Professor in Education, University of Auckland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.