Leaving my dear friend's funeral a couple of weeks ago, (more of that raucous, funny, moving, authentic and perfectly fitting tribute another time) I sat on a train in Paddington station waiting to depart for home and felt an overwhelming sense of connection that I hadn't felt for a very long time.
Being chronically ill and having to leave my own home since I went on long term sick leave a year and a half ago now has left me feeling incredibly isolated in more ways than one. Sitting on that train I realised that I hadn't experienced that many different types of hugs for a long, long time and I awoke the next morning honestly feeling physically and emotionally lighter in body and mind, as if a great weight had been lifted from my heart. I felt a warmth and openness in my chest that I can recall even now, a couple of weeks later, sitting here tapping away at the keyboard, hoping that this post reaches someone in need and may help alleviate a sense of heaviness or sadness that you may feel at any point in your life and for whatever reason.
Many of our lives now seem to be lacking in physical contact for a number of different reasons. You may be in a relationship, have a buzzing social life and a great group of friends or live in a family or close knit community and still feel very alone. It is not only geographical or physical isolation that leads us to feel like we are disconnected from everyone else. Surveys show that up to 80 percent of us are feeling this sense of aloneness at any one time, and that my friend is disheartening to say the least, but there is something very simple that we can do for ourselves to help us out of these painful feelings.
The day of the funeral was a day of meeting friends, colleagues and acquaintances I had not seen for some time. Since becoming unwell I have slowly retreated from any semblance of a social life spending most of the time with my dear ageing mother and my younger brother who I now live with in a small ruralish village. Now although I love these two remaining members of my tight knit nuclear family very much, they happen to be two of the most un-tactile and undemonstrative people I think I have ever met. Touch has become an anomaly to me over the last 18 months or so and this was made startlingly apparent to me at dear Miss Jones's last hurrah.
In what now feels like another life, I was an actress, and yes I admit a bit (some might say a lot) of a luvvie to boot. Though the hearty hugging and constant kissing of that life was alien to me really, I used my best acting skills and joined in wholeheartedly. I loved it! The feeling of belonging to an 'extended family' of sorts, even if it was just for the duration of whatever production we were all working on for a limited period, was quite new to me but I really did lap it up. I was more than happy to be part of the fond grappling and air kissing of anyone that crossed your path. It made me feel good and I glowed a little inside, but there was always a sense of awkwardness in me, that I don't think I always covered up very well, but you know I didn't realise how much I missed all of that human contact, real or pretend, until I was thrust back into it at the funeral.
I have a small handful of very dear, old friends who of course I hug fondly and affectionately whenever I see them but those occasions sometimes feel few and far between, and as I have neither a partner or any children, physical contact is something I ache for in my loneliness and is glaringly missing from my everyday life.
That day I stopped counting how many times I felt the arms of another quite instinctively meet mine and I will not forget the kind hand that reached to hold mine during a particularly moving part of the service, nor will I forget the '4 musketeers' hold I found myself reassuringly part of with 3 other weeping female friends of mine when we could not stop our tears from flowing freely. The air kisses felt like real kisses between a variety of lips and cheeks, of lips and lips and of lips on a hand that trembled in grief.Gone were the 'mwah mwahs' of my past working life replaced with such tender and loving connections that really had almost forgotten existed. Why did it take the death of such a beloved and respected lady for us to reach out and soothe each other? I don't have the answer to that question but I have to say that I think she'd be rather glad that it did though.
Why, especially as Brits, do we shy away from expressing ourselves in such a tender and necessary manner?
Why are so many people so ungenerous with the hugs and the holding of each other, that we all require to feel safe, loved and cared for?
Whatever the reasons, we do not have to suffer this lack of contact and it's negative effects even in our solitude. Kristin Neff is professor of Human Development and Culture at The University of Texas and co-founder with Chris Germer and Kristy Arbon of Mindful Self-Compassion, an organisation that has developed an empirically supported 8-week course designed to help people cultivate the skill of self-compassion. Neff discovered through her extensive work on self-compassion that "because thoughts and emotions have the same effect on our bodies whether they're directed to ourselves or to others...research suggests that self-compassion may be a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin."
As you may know oxytocin is a hormone that is released in our bodies making us feel safe, reducing cortisol and calming cardiovascular stress. In other words it dramatically enhances our sense of well being and your body will release oxytocin, which is also said to have powerful anti-depressant effects, in response to any physical gesture of warmth and care.
The absence of touch, says primatologist Robert Sapolsky, "is seemingly one of the most marked of developmental stressors that we can suffer."
So why not try any of the following on a regular basis:
- Hug yourself - wrap your own arms tightly or gently, whatever feels right, around yourself and just hold yourself for as long as you need to be held.
- Gently stroke your own cheek or arm - perhaps even closing your eyes and becoming aware of what it feels like in your body, in your heart.
- Rock your own body, slowly, either backwards and forwards or from side to side.
- Hold your own hand in whatever manner comforts you.
- Place one or both hands lightly or with some pressure on your belly.
- Place one or both hands over your heart area in the centre of your chest and breath into that area with kindness and care for yourself.