Life » Culture

What happens when we become touch deprived


Shawn Belles of Pain Relief Massage & Wellness in Penfield works on a client. - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Shawn Belles of Pain Relief Massage & Wellness in Penfield works on a client.
During the three months last year that he was forced to shut his massage therapy practice, Shawn Belles received some heartbreaking phone calls.

“I had some clients reach out to me begging me to just see them for one day,” Belles said. “I had one client call me crying, saying they're in so much pain. And I was like, ‘I'm sorry, I just can't. I can't open. I could lose my license.’”

Belles, the owner of Pain Relief Massage & Wellness in Penfield, has been practicing massage therapy for 10 years and has a client roster of more than 100 people, many of whom seek his help in alleviating their chronic pain.

Pain or no pain, though, people need to be touched.

Touch is the first sense to develop. Researchers have found it to be critical in the physical and emotional development of children and the mental well-being in adults. When our hearing and sight begin to fade, touch remains. A prolonged absence of physical contact can lead to something called touch deprivation, which has been found to exacerbate depression and weaken the immune system.

Licensed massage therapists in New York were allowed to reopen last summer and, in some cases, saw their business boom.

“So many people were dying to come back in,” Belles said. “I probably referred well over 20 people to other massage therapists just because I couldn’t fit people in.”
But people who rely on massage to either manage pain or for touch that they cannot find elsewhere in their lives are not getting as much as they should, and at a time when everyday handshakes and hugs are off the table.

More stringent cleaning protocols have forced therapists to reduce the number of people they can accommodate on any given day. Some therapists remained closed, having been unable to weather the economic fallout of the pandemic, while others reworked their business models to touchless therapy, citing health concerns. Many have taken to teaching self-massage techniques in lieu of a visit to their office.

Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute of the University of Miami Health System, has called touch “the mother of all senses” and argued in her groundbreaking 2001 book, “Touch,” that Americans in particular had become inordinately touch deprived through a series of “no-touch” policies and practices that permeated society, from prohibiting hugs between teachers and students to an over-reliance on painkillers.

Her team conducted a survey in April 2020, about a month after the pandemic really took hold in the United States, and found then that 68 percent of respondents felt they were touch deprived. Even of those who were “bubbling” with a partner, only a third acknowledged touching their partner with any frequency.

“And only 23 percent of people were living alone,” Field said. “So that means a lot of people who are living with other people were also touch deprived, which is sort of shocking.”

Data for long term effects of the loss of touch don’t really exist, Field said, but said that aggression has been found to be a byproduct of touch deprivation.

More than a tool for relaxation, massage is serious health care. It’s considered a medical necessity for people with chronic pain, which includes 1 in 5 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Belles said that in the 10 years that he’s been practicing, he’s seen massage increasingly considered to be health care for people instead of just something they do on vacation. “I believe that all massage is medically necessary,” he said. “Because even that relaxation massage could be enough to get those endorphins up, particularly if you haven’t been touched in a while.”

How many times over the past year have we seen a typed-out wail posted on social media, the writer lamenting how much they miss hugs? We’re social creatures, after all.

“I think we all agree that touch is really important for people's health,” said massage therapist Suzannah Lake, whose practice, Go to Health, in Rochester has been shuttered since March.

Suzannah Lake of Go to Health in Rochester. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Suzannah Lake of Go to Health in Rochester.
Personal health issues have kept Lake from seeing her 60 or so clients just yet. But she said she plans to reopen in the late spring, with some changes that include shorter sessions with an eye toward limiting contact.

“We've had to put that aside and that's okay,” Lake said. “But I'm hoping that we'll be able to find another way to address the issues that lack of touch brings up.”

Among those issues, she said, was the emotional burden shouldered by people who live without being touched, particularly those who live with chronic pain. Touch, she said, can make pain bearable.

“Our nervous system can kind of switch from, ‘I'm in pain, and I'm afraid,’ to, ‘I'm in pain, but I'm not alone, and I think I'll be okay,’” Lake said. “We can move into a more healing phase.”

There were 13,324 licensed massage therapists in New York as of last year, according to the state Department of Labor, which in recent years has issued about 600 new licenses annually. How many of those therapists are practicing is difficult to pinpoint. But anecdotally, many saw their businesses derailed by the pandemic.

It’s hard to imagine a person more in need of the pain relief and relaxation that a massage can provide than a hospital nurse working in an intensive care unit during COVID.

Emma Reilly is one of them. She cared for coronavirus patients in the ICU at Strong Memorial Hospital before relocating to Chicago last summer for graduate school, and now works in an ICU there.

Reilly was a client of Lake’s before the pandemic struck, and hasn’t had a massage since. She said she hasn’t sought out a new therapist in part because she works with COVID patients and is potentially exposed to the virus.

Another of Lake’s clients came to her specifically because she didn’t want to take the regimen of pills offered by doctors to treat her fibromyalgia. Diagnosed in her mid-20s with the debilitating chronic inflammation disorder, Anjolee de Maroux said her pain changed her life completely.

“It took me out like a freight train,” she said, adding that she didn’t feel like herself on the medications.

De Maroux has been a client of Lake’s for close to five years, and paired therapeutic massage with movement and strength training to ease her pain. But both of these treatments disappeared when COVID arrived.

At the same time, restaurants were shuttered, and de Maroux went from working 60 to 80 hours a week to being laid off. She suddenly couldn’t afford her treatments, had they been available to her, and her pain returned, such that she could barely get out of bed.

She has since been treating herself with diet modifications and massage techniques she learned from Lake and another therapist.

Lake said she’s daunted by the volume of people who have had the coping mechanism of touch taken away all at once.

“I'm anticipating going back to work and having everyone just be fully locked up,” Lake said. “All of my clientele, they need touch more than ever. And they've gone without it for maybe longer than they ever have.”

Lake said when she returns to work, she’ll need to downsize her client roster. She’s planning to work out of her home, with a higher focus on teaching clients how to work on themselves over virtual sessions.

“My goal going forward is not just to help people see the importance of touch, but to value touch to the point where they'll actually actively seek it out,” Lake said. “That’s not something we can get back to immediately, but seek out things that give them the same comfort. It's not something we can just lose entirely, we have to find a way.”


If you feel touch deprived, considering tapping these helpful tips from massage therapists Shawn Belles and Suzannah Lake:

• Communicated regularly with loved ones. “It's having that sense of community and talking to people, it really can help your sense of just normalcy,” Belles said.

• Get massage tools online and learn some basic techniques for face massage. While you wash your face every day, give yourself a little bit of a face massage — you get some lymphatic draining from your face, which helps clear sinuses and aids in sleep.

• Drink a lot of water to help flush your system.

• If your body loves to be warm, give yourself a warm space to dwell this winter. Take warm baths, or if you can, go to a sauna. Just sitting comfortably and relaxing can do the trick.

• Stretching and increasing body-awareness is key. Think about all of our body parts and what hurts, and work on improving your posture.

“A lot of people get massages because it's very private and personal,” Lake said. “And it's a bit of time that is just them alone, with their thoughts and their body. They're with someone that they trust who's going to make them feel better.”

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's life editor. She can be reached at