No one touches each other anymore. What started with mobile phones, was encouraged with no touch policies at schools and has been sealed with social distancing. And what it means is that many of us are touch deprived. We can’t shake hands, high five and definitely no hugs.
“To touch can be to give life” Michelangelo
Touch has many healing benefits in the body and there have been many studies on the health benefits of touch. Premature babies gained 47% more weight when they received three fifteen minute sessions of touch therapy a day. And massage has been well researched showing it decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) whilst improving health such as circulation, lymphatic flow and immunity. One study injected a cold germ into people and found those who had more hugs had a better immune response to the cold virus. Not bad to know given all the things going around this year.
But there is more than a physical benefit. Touch helps us bond and connect. In fact we are wired to touch and receive touch. And physical touch makes us feel good. Not only does touch decrease cortisol, the chronic stress hormone, It triggers the “Big 4” in feel good hormones:
Dopamine, our brains award system which helps us feel pleasure.
Serotonin, the natural mood booster which makes you feel happy, like everything is right in the world.
Endorphins, those fabulous chemicals that helps us deal with stress and feelings of pain.
Oxytocin which gives us a greater sense of wellbeing, of bonding, love and trust.
Oxytocin is a great chemical. Oxytocin gives us the “warm fuzzies” and is released with positive physical contact like cuddling, kissing, and holding hand, but also talking, sex, breastfeeding and childbirth.
It contributes to the parent child bond being released when women give birth and when they breast feed. Mothers with high levels of oxytocin are more likely to be affectionate with their children and then children receive their own boost of oxytocin and learn to seek it out on their own.
Oxytocin has been linked with increased life satisfaction levels. And it is no wonder given it has the power to regulate emotional response and pro social behaviours like trust, empathy, co operation and positive communication. In fact NBA basketball teams whose players touch each other win more games.
Touch is soothing. It calms stress. When you touch distressed elderly patients it helps them relax and make emotional connections.
One study asked whether human can clearly communicate compassion through touch. So they built a barrier in the lab and separated two strangers from each other. One person stuck his or her arm through the barrier and waited. The other person was given a list of emotions and he or she had to try to convey each emotion through a one-second touch to the strangers forearm. The person being touched had to guess the emotion.
Now the odds of guessing the right emotion are quite low given the number of emotions being considered. In fact the researchers estimated the chance to be about 8%. remarkably, the participants guessed compassion correctly nearly 60% of the time. Gratitude, anger, love and fear were guessed correctly more than 50% of the time. *
“Touch provides its own language of compassion, a language that is essential to what it means to be human.” Dachar Keltner
The takeaway from all this is to maintain touch where you can. Now obviously don’t got touching some random walking down the street. And obviously do this is a hygienic and safe manner. But touch people as much as you can. Hold hands, cuddle your kids, kiss your partner, even have a mattress dance. Whatever it takes given we are all so touch deprived. And at a time when many of us are feeling disconnected, stressed and anxious, touch can be the soothing thing we most need.
“Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth”. Margaret Atwood
* There were various gender combinations in the study, such as when a woman tried to communicate anger to a man, he got zero right—he had no idea what she was doing. And when a man tried to communicate compassion to a woman, she didn’t know what was going on. Turns out gender communication hits a few blocks in some areas.