Touch, epigenetics and the Covid-19
This post isn’t about the pros and cons of lockdowns, facemasks and social distancing. It’s not intended to be a criticism or defense of any of the measures various countries have taken. Instead, I want to examine some of the perhaps overlooked and hidden consequences of this pandemic that can impact us through epigenetics for years (perhaps generations). Epigenetics says that genes can be turned on and off and expressed differently through changes in environment and behavior. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and the director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is a pioneer in understanding how the effects of stress and trauma can transmit biologically to the next generation. She has studied the children of Holocaust survivors and of pregnant women who survived the 9/11 attacks. But more about her work later. Let’s look at touch first.
Wired to touch
By now, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with touch and the Covid-19. Professor Asim Shah, executive vice-chair of the Baylor University College of Medicine, says, “Human beings are wired to touch and be touched. When a child is born, that is how they bond with their mother—through touch. “Our wiring system has touch everywhere, so it’s difficult for us not to think about physical contact.” We need to be touched. According to a 2014 study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, hugging can also help our bodies fight off infections. When we hug or get a friendly touch, our brains release a neuropeptide called oxytocin. This hormone helps increase positive, feel-good sensations of trust, emotional bonding and social connection while decreasing fear and anxiety responses in the brain simultaneously, which is why it’s called the “love hormone.” Oxytocin also helps prevent touch starvation.
“When someone is touch starved, it’s like someone who is starved for food,” Shah continues. “They want to eat, but they can’t. Their psyche and their body want to touch someone, but they can’t do it because of the fear associated with, in this case, the pandemic.” As many people are already touch-starved, the number of people suffering from anxiety and depression is expected to increase following this pandemic. Touch starvation triggers a cascade of negative effects and increases stress, depression and anxiety. To counter these effects, the body releases cortisol and activates our “flight-or-fight” response, increasing heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. Cortisol also suppresses the digestive and immune systems, which makes us more susceptible to infection. That’s a vicious circle for sure. Moreover, if we’re depressed or stressed due to an extended period of touch starvation, we can even end up with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And that brings us back to Dr. Yehuda’s work about passing on trauma to following generations and epigenetics.
What happens when we don’t touch?
Touch can have powerful psychological effects on both the giver and the recipient. It conveys a lot of unsaid information and can affect people’s decisions without them even being aware of it. Practicing social distancing to prevent the spread of Covid-19 means that platonic touching among friends and colleagues is off-limits, which means no more high-fives, hugs and pats on the back for the time being. The implications of this are enormous because our bodies crave touch. Many of the young and old are already feeling the effects of not touching or being touched. According to Dr. Yehuda’s research, the absence of touching combined with the virus’s trauma can extend across generations, i.e., we might pass these effects on to our offspring.
Your genes can change how they function
According to Dr. Yehuda, “We’re just starting to understand that just because you’re born with a certain set of genes, you’re not in a biologic prison as a result of those genes — that changes can be made to how those genes function. When people say something traumatic happened to them – and it could be a veteran who came back from war; it could be a rape victim; it could be a person in a violent accident or a criminal attack – they say ‘I’m not the same person. I’ve changed. I am not the same person that I was.’” Epigenetics is starting to explore how we pass on trauma to later generations. “Think about genetics as the computer and epigenetics as the software, the app or the program,” she continues. “It appears that some children who inherit trauma are born with a lower capacity to metabolize stress.”
Trauma effects endure
Dr. Yehuda’s research showed that the children of Holocaust survivors were three times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder – if they suffered a traumatic event – than demographically similar Jewish persons whose parents did not survive the Holocaust. “Holocaust offspring also showed a lot of resilience-related qualities, but in terms of this idea of being more vulnerable to depression or anxiety, that was real. We also found – and this was very surprising to us – that Holocaust offspring had the same neuroendocrine or hormonal abnormalities that we were viewing in Holocaust survivors and persons with post-traumatic stress disorder,” Dr. Yehuda added. The concept of post-traumatic stress disorder has shown that trauma effects endure and don’t all go away. Epigenetics allows us to study these effects across generations. Some cultures have known about transgenerational issues for centuries.
Native American Indians use the term “soul wounds” for trauma that extends across generations. The “Seventh Generation Principle” is based on an ancient Iroquois philosophy that today’s decisions and actions should result in a healthy and sustainable world seven generations into the future. We often refer to this principle today when making decisions about our energy, water and natural resources to ensure those decisions are sustainable for seven generations in the future. It can also be applied to relationships – every decision should result in sustainable relationships seven generations in the future.
Not always negative
“But the effects don’t all have to be negative,” Dr. Yehuda points out. “I think the purpose of epigenetic changes is to increase the repertoire of possible responses. I don’t think it’s meant to damage or not damage people; it just expands the range of biologic responses. And that can be a very positive thing. Who would you rather be in a war zone with — somebody who’s had previous adversity and knows how to defend themselves, or somebody who has never had to fight for anything, but might be very advantaged in many other social and cultural ways?” Her studies also show that we can pass along coping strategies to our offspring. Knowledge is a form of power, and if we know what’s going on in our bodies, it removes a lot of the confusion and the panic. We can use these coping strategies to calm ourselves down. Just acknowledging the force of trauma itself can help healing. This is important because we’ve all been impacted by the trauma of the virus in one way or another and many of us are touch-deprived.
The long-term impact of touch deprivation is devastating. But humans are resilient, and we will undoubtedly learn how to connect and be intimate in different ways. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the long term. Will we end up being touch starved and pass the trauma of the Covid-19 on to coming generations, or will we become more resilient and pass on the coping mechanisms Dr. Yehuda mentioned? Adopting a positive mindset, looking for new ways to connect and being mindful of the Seventh Generation Principle can keep us from passing on these “soul wounds” to our offspring.