Mental wealth: Physical contact is critical to curing life's stresses

The fear factor is never far away, leading us to distract and comfort ourselves when we should be comforting each other.

Fear is the key emotion driving much of what we humans do these days.

You can see this most strikingly in the themes and story­lines of the most popular films, TV shows and novels, which seem to reflect our subconscious concerns.

The top earners show us how Hobbits, Avengers, Iron Man and X-Men will save human kind from evil or mechanical terrors. They used to be Terminators, now they’re Transformers. Harry Potter has been replaced by The Hunger Games, in which teenagers are forced to kill each other for reality TV.

And don’t think this dark mood is just a teenage thing. American Sniper, the true story of a Navy Seal sharp-shooter, took three times as much at the box office as the Stephen Hawking biopic. Homeland and House of Cards betray our suspicions about the deceptions and rot plaguing society.

But this gut feeling hasn’t always been there. In the 60s, Star Trek told us we could boldly embrace the future. Live long and prosper, said Dr Spock, and The Sound of Music was the biggest earner of that soapily optimistic decade.

Then Jaws struck in 1974, that malevolent thudding music heralding the stark change in the emotional climate.

And when we humans get the wobbles, we just don’t reach for comic book heroes. Distraction, escape and violent revenge are our characteristic appetites.

We distract ourselves with voyeuristic over-consumption of the comforting fundamentals: food, sex and sport… just like the Roman Empire, shortly before it fell. We want MasterChef, Fifty Shades of Grey and Match of the Day.

We escape the future by plunging into the past: period dramas like Poldark, Wolf Hall, Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife.

And our violent revenge comes with TV hits like Dexter and Breaking Bad, featuring protagonists who’ve let their anger rip.

The former is a police ‘blood-splatter specialist’ who, in his spare time, assassinates nasty criminals who’ve slipped through the justice system. The latter is a high-school chemistry teacher who, when diagnosed with terminal cancer, provides for his family by cooking up top-quality crystal meth that reaps a cash fortune.

Which begs the question: if this fear factor is for real, what are the effects on our wellbeing?

In the shorter term, our thinking narrows and we’re prone to poor decisions. Military folk call it the ‘fog of war’.

In the longer term, the hyper-anxiety makes us ill, either directly through poor sleep and fatigue from tension, or indirec­tly through the booze and food we’re over-consuming to anaesthetise our unease.

So what’s the antidote?

Bond (nope, not 007). We need to team up hand in hand, because although our typing fingertips make us feel in touch, until we’re all there in flesh and blood, our friendships count for little. We need creative action, shoulder to shoulder, not ethereal tweets sent from lonely retreats.

Facebook won’t help us. Facing up will.

When I worked in the high-security Young Offender Prison at Feltham, the only thing that made tough lads sob was solitary confinement. It strikes at the human soul.

What reassures, heals and inspires a frightened human animal (you and me) is benevolent physical touch and its equivalents. It’s no coincidence that as all things digitally distant and directly worrying have gone through the roof, so too has our take-up of close-embrace partner dancing, hands-on therapies, group yoga and choral singing.

We live in worrying times, and the best way to make it through is to face things together in close-quarter partnerships.

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