LOS ANGELES -- Lying in a fetal position next to my laptop on a lazy Saturday afternoon, a soothing voice wafts over Zoom and asks me if my body parts are "saying anything."
The voice belongs to Jean Franzblau, a slim woman with graying hair and a warm presence who is a professional cuddler. She began offering virtual sessions in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, when she realized the core of her service -- to offer platonic touch outside of the scope of sex and romance -- now comes with serious health risk.
The business' "whole purpose is to help people to connect people, and this virus is basically saying that's not going to be a safe thing for most people," said Franzblau, the founder of Cuddle Sanctuary in Los Angeles. "And I had to face that and say, 'Is there anything I can do?'"
What can any of us do? Social and physical distancing are the mantras of the moment. Public health guidelines advise people to stay at least six feet away from those outside of their household -- too far for a hug, cuddle or handshake.
For some -- like the happily partnered or the content recluse -- the directive might not be difficult to follow. But for those living alone who thrive on physical connection, all that distance can be lonely.
And humans do need touch.
Dr. Steven Siegel, who chairs USC's psychiatry department, said that several studies show that pleasant, situationally appropriate touch increases activity in parts of the brain associated with pleasure and enjoyment, as well as social interactions.
"If that's part of someone's normal way of being ... the deprivation of that is going to be experienced as a psychological loss," Siegel said.
But there are alternatives. Hug curtains exist. And there are some guidelines that can mitigate risk. But for the risk-averse -- or the experientially curious -- there are methods that don't involve touch in the traditional sense at all.
Use your imaginationTo "hug" your grandma or immunosuppressed friend, you don't necessarily need to get out of your chair. Imagery exercises -- thinking about a pleasant physical or social experience -- can have similar psychological benefits as the activity itself. They are frequently used in therapy, according to Dr. Emanuel Maidenberg, head of UCLA Health's cognitive behavioral therapy program.