COVID canoodling

For the betterment of our society’s physical health, we have spent much of this year with little to no physical contact with others. Why are kissing and other forms of physical affection important to our mental health?

Image: Gaelle Marcel via Unsplash

There was something amusingly ironic about Scott Morrison’s announcement on March 15 that we should no longer shake hands. Memories of the PM dishing out handshakes to an array of unwilling Australians during the Black Summer fires can be found here. But then the realisation sunk in: all forms of intimacy are off limits for the foreseeable future.

As articles reported that la bise – the French art of kissing everyone on the cheek – may be gone forever and health officials encouraged us to greet each other by touching elbows, it became apparent just how lonely the approaching autumn and winter months may be for a lot of people. While social distancing and the subsequent saving of lives is clearly a positive thing, it has been interesting to reflect on the emotions that have grown with the benefit of time and hindsight.

If you have found yourself inhabiting singledom or have endured forced separation from romantic partners during social distancing restrictions and have missed physical affection, you are most certainly not alone.

As sociology researcher at La Trobe University Dr Andrea Waling explained “As good as social distancing is for our health and wellbeing, I think it does have some negative impacts on our mental health. Loss of intimacy and loss of connection limit our ability to seek out those connections that we need to feel desired, loved and feel good about ourselves.”

Whether you are the type of person who longingly plans with premeditative fantasies or prefers to be overcome by impulse; whether you are setting the stage for a potential romance, making connections with a stranger or sharing an intimate moment with someone you love, romantic kissing*  is a crowd favourite in expressing affection.

The pandemic has forced many of us to refrain from close personal contact for the health of the majority and it begs the question: why is the line between germ transfer and physical intimacy so blurred?

During the throws of an amorous kiss and embrace, we are (hopefully) not often thinking about how germy the act really is.

Why do we romantically kiss?

It turns out kissing is discouraged during social distancing for good reason – around 80 million bacteria are shared during an intimate kiss lasting only ten seconds. Viruses are also enthusiastic about being transferred via smooching, especially the respiratory variety (i.e. COVID), influenza, Epstein-Barr and herpes.

Scientific studies on kissing are quite limited. The only other animals we know that definitely kiss are chimpanzees and bonobos. And though the exact moment humans began kissing is hard to pinpoint, the oldest written evidence of it is thought to be in Hindu Sanskrit texts that are 3,500 years old.

Why we started kissing is an ongoing topic of debate and speculation for anthropologists, biologists and evolutionary psychologists alike.

We also know little about what motivates us to kiss. There was one study published in 2019 that examined 42 motivators and plotted them by categorising them into: sex/relationship or attainment/insecurity. The study concluded that both male and female participants were far more motivated by the former than the latter.

A much easier question to answer is why it is enjoyed.

As the most exposed of the body’s erogenous zones and being full of nerve endings, our lips are very sensitive. Touch, smell and taste are all pulled into sharp focus when we kiss.

Kissing, like any positive physical touch, promotes the release of happy hormones: dopamine, which is responsible for the experience of pleasure and satisfaction; oxytocin, which promotes trust, empathy and bonding and; serotonin, which makes us feel optimistic and happy. All of which can reduce our levels of cortisol – the stress hormone.

Kissing not only feels good but unbeknownst to us, imparts important subliminal biological information – pheromones through scent and saliva – about the person at the other end of the spaghetti strand. Not to mention, helping us gage their level of personal hygiene! Evidence suggests that a man’s scent provides hidden clues about his DNA, which is subconsciously picked up by his partner. This information can act as a physiological litmus test – evolutionary psychologists found in a 2007 study that over half of all women and men surveyed had ended budding relationships because they found the other person unattractive after the first kiss.

Picture: Tim Mossholder via Unsplash

Everyone likes kissing, right?

With the amount of kissing we lay witness to through a mind-boggling selection of art mediums in the 21st century, you are forgiven for thinking that pashing is a near-universal experience, an act all humans partake in despite the cringe-inducing amount of bacteria swapping.

It may surprise you to know that a study published in 2015 observed that only 46 per cent of cultures practice the act of romantic kissing.

The lead author of the study, anthropologist William Jankowiak of the University of Nevada told the BBC the idea that romantic kissing is universal, is actually a product of intergenerational western culture – it is neither universally found among humans or animals.

It is unclear exactly why only around half of us romantically kiss, but interestingly, it is thought that regional cultural variations are, at least in some part, influenced by the prevalence of infectious diseases. For example, the cultivation of spices is more ubiquitous in regions afflicted by high rates of infectious disease for their antiviral properties. Likewise, a modest link has been drawn between high rates of infectious disease and lower rates of romantic kissing.

Even within our own lip-locking culture there are people who don’t derive pleasure from kissing. According to sociologist and sexologist Dr Waling “There is this belief that’s it’s a fundamental part of life but we’re increasingly seeing people who are saying that for them, any physical touch is not a way in which they like to connect. Touch may cause them anxiety or distress, so it’s about being more nuanced about what intimacy looks like.”

Non-romantic kissing

When asked whether our bodies react differently to kisses depending on the type of relationship, psychology lecturer at Victoria University Dr Glen Hosking said “The processing of the physical touch elicits responses to varying degrees, which are increased given the level of meaning. If someone attributes additional meaning to a physical act, like if they perceive the act to be romantic and thus ‘more meaningful’, then the impact of the physical touch is far more significant.” So, romantic kisses have a different effect on us than platonic or familial (makes sense).

Dr Hosking said familial and platonic physical affection is still very important for our wellbeing, especially for older people. “There’s lots of research that says that the older population get their sense of life meaning through the interactions they have with family. The physical interactions that are lost due to social distancing has likely led to many older people living without a sense of meaning.”

While it has been a lonely time for some people, there are still plenty of ways we can connect with others (everyone, call your Granny!). Surely the fact that we live in the technological age means people are more connected than ever, right?

Can technology replace physical intimacy?

The question whether technology enables the feeling of intimacy and closeness between people is a field of study still in its infancy.

Dr Waling found social distancing has accelerated the increased use of dating apps, seeking sex online, cyber-flirting and sexting. A study published last year found that participants in these types of activities not only reported feeling less lonely and depressed but gained a sense of emotional connection from them.

Though there is evidence that the internet can facilitate intimacy, Dr Waling concluded in an article for The Conversation that the online world is no substitute for someone’s physical presence.

So, what to do if you are feeling lonely?

“maintaining good sleep, good exercise and good diet.”

If you are feeling isolated at the moment, psychologist Dr Hosking reckons you are not on your own, “I think one of the big things around this is not to regard it as something that’s abnormal or unusual. A lot of the reactions people are having are normal.”

Dr Hosking believes the added challenges for individuals at this time – not just feelings of loneliness but that of uncertainty, loss of income or sense of purpose “could have large ramifications for our mental health.”

This sentiment opined by Dr Hosking adds to the volley of health experts around Australia sounding alarm bells over a looming mental health crisis due to the pandemic.

To fight some of the low moods that social distancing is causing, Dr Hosking prescribes maintaining connections with the use of technology, showering pets with affection and “maintaining good sleep, good exercise and a good diet.”

If you would like more in-depth advice from Dr Hosking on combatting the social distancing blues, he co-authored this article.

While social distancing may well have both short and long term effects on our mental wellbeing, we can do our best to relieve some of these by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and partaking in as many positive social interactions as possible – be these through modern technology and social media or where possible, one-on-one time with friends and family.

As for the value of the ‘good ol’ smooch’, it seems obvious that we should get stuck in whenever we are able, as the positive benefits derived through the brains joyous explosion of feel good hormones can do nothing but help lift one’s mood and spirits.

* smooching, making-out, snogging, tonsil hockey, pashing, etc.

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