The Science of Touch
Research demonstrating the need for human touch is extensive. Babies literally cannot survive without human touch. Skin-to-skin contact with the mother during the first hour after birth has been shown to help regulate temperature, heart rate, breathing and decrease crying.
Touch is important all through our lives. It is a big part of how we interact with others. We shake our co-workers’ hands, hug our loved ones and high-five our friends. We bond through physical touch.
Skin happens to be our body’s largest organ. It sends good and bad touch sensations to our brain. When we are engaging in pleasant touch, like a hug with someone we love, our brain releases a hormone called oxytocin. This makes us feel good, increases our bond with the other person and can lower our feelings of anxiety and fear. Human touch can help regulate sleep and digestion, improve our immune system and even fight infections!
Effects of Touch Starvation
What happens when touch is lacking in our lives? A few things that can happen are stress, anxiety and depression. As a response to stress, our body makes a hormone called cortisol. This can cause our heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and breathing rate to go up which negatively impacts the immune and digestive systems. Lack of touch can lead to poor quality of sleep and worsen health overall.
How to Increase Touch in Our Lives
Now that we know how important human touch is, we want to make sure we get enough of it! If there is no one around to hug at the moment, we need to get in the habit of looking for alternate ways to get the therapeutic benefits of touch. Massage therapy is a great place to start. It has been shown to increase attentiveness, ease depression and enhance immune function. If massage therapy is not the right choice, there are other spa treatments to try like a manicure and pedicure or any treatment that sounds appealing.
Getting a pet can be a good way to satisfy the need for touch as they mimic some of the benefits of human touch. Studies show that oxytocin levels peak in dog owners when they cuddle their pets.
Video chatting can be the next best thing to touch as interacting with others can ease some of the symptoms of touch starvation.
Touch as Communication
In general, the most important things we reveal through touch are authority and intimacy. For example, the handshake…it’s an opportunity to have an extended moment of touch with someone we may not know very well. We want to convey in this moment something about ourselves. Perhaps that we are strong but not overly strong, and we are warm and friendly, as well. The right eye contact and facial expressions must accompany this form of touch, and we can say so much without speaking a word. Touch can be a powerful tool. It has been shown that more touch-oriented teachers, doctors and managers get higher ratings. Of course, there is always a line that can’t be crossed, and we must be aware of that line.
Maybe the most important time to communicate via touch is when someone needs consoling. Research shows that touch is the best way to comfort someone during a difficult time. If you ask people how they’d comfort someone in this type of situation, they tend to list pats on the shoulder or back, hugs, holding hands and other kinds of touch more than anything else. Touch can convey the message that a grieving person is not alone. It can also tell a joyful person they are being celebrated by others. Why is touch such an important part of our language? Maybe it’s because there are times – during intense grief or fear, but also in ecstatic moments of joy or love – when only the language of touch can fully express what we feel.