“To touch can be to give life”

Michelangelo

Science attributes a huge importance to touch and its boosting effects upon our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing; something we could all do with at the moment.

Simple gestures, such as a tap on the shoulder, a high five or a handshake, are so often taken for granted, but science has found – time and time again – that the act of touch is a necessity for happiness, health, growth and development*.

Not only that, but as Dacher Keltner explains, touch is our primary language of compassion, and our primary means for spreading compassion.

However, sadly, even before the pandemic, people within the UK (and the USA) were known for their limited inclination to touch one another during friendly conversations (first identified by an interesting study in the 1960s) – especially in comparison to other countries, such as France, Italy and Puerto Rico.

Zoom forward a few years (excuse the pun), and we have all felt the effects that COVID-19 has had upon our capacity to touch; with social distancing, quarantine and isolation from family and friends limiting our physical interactions. If we add the fact that many people are now working remotely, it’s understandable why so many of us are feeling starved of touch.

Yet, study after study continues to show the importance of physical contact in supporting early development, communication and relationship building, as well as it’s ability to help us fight both physical diseases and mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

So, let’s look at a few key benefits…

Two men pampering themselves with face masks and fist pumping

Benefits of touch

The need for touch starts from the early developmental stages of life. In fact, did you know that touch is the first of our senses to develop in utero? So, it makes sense that it would be vital for our health and happiness.

Tiffany Field conducted research on newborn babies and found that just three 15-minute sessions of ‘touch therapy’ each day, for 5-10 days, had a significantly positive effect; attributing to 47% higher weight gain in preterm newborns, as compared to those who only received ‘standard medical treatment’.

In addition, skin-to-skin touch between mother and child has the ability to regulate a baby’s temperature, heart rate and breathing, as well as encouraging the release of oxytocin – commonly referred to as the ‘love hormone’ – that promotes bonding and trust.

This powerful effect then continues throughout our entire lives and has been found to reduce the stress hormone – cortisol – effectively calming key bodily functions, such as our heart rate and blood pressure, and inevitably helping to pace our nervous system. Naturally then, friendly touch can be linked to a reduction in experiences of anxiety and depression.

Yet, we continue to remain a touch-deprived society

Despite the variety of benefits to be gained, some cultures have been found to be heavily starved of touch. A recent 2015 study measured how much people embraced touch across five different countries, and unsurprisingly – Finland and France came out on top, whereas the United Kingdom came out on the bottom.

Two people holding hands

The effects of touch deprivation

When we are deprived of touch, we experience an astonishing number of negative health outcomes, with the relationship between stress and touch remaining strong and insidious.

Over the years, especially prior to the animal rights movement, researchers have conducted numerous tests on animals (namely monkeys and rats) that resulted in the identification of a direct link between aggressiveness and touch deprivation.

And, in addition to aggressiveness, researchers believe the following symptoms could also be signs that someone is touch deprived:

  • feelings of depression
  • anxiety
  • stress
  • low relationship satisfaction
  • poor sleeping patterns
  • a tendency to avoid relationships and attachments

Note: you may not even realise you’re touch starved, so if you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, it’s worth considering the role that touch plays in your life.

Cuddling puppy dogs in a blanket

So, how can we safely increase touch?

How someone incorporates more touch into their life will be very dependent on their circumstances and preferences*, however, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Self-soothe. Did you know that we instinctually rub our arms, foreheads, necks or chests when we are feeling anxious or sad? This is a form of self-soothing and is a powerful way to introduce yourself to increased levels of touch. Who doesn’t love to give themselves a big hug?
  • Try some massage therapy. It doesn’t matter if it’s delivered by a professional or by a loved one, but massages are known to help you relax while enjoying the benefits of another person’s touch. If you can’t manage a full body massage, consider getting a manicure or a pedicure.
  • If you have children, find as many ways as possible to be tactile. Loving touch will not only boost levels of bonding and trust, but it will also support with the emotional development of your child.
  • Cuddle a pet if you have one. Pets are an ideal way to soothe yourself and get that magic dose of oxytocin, without the need for small talk.
  • Holding hands and cuddling doesn’t need to be reserved solely for romantic relationships – cuddle your friends too.*
  • When in conversation with loved one, reassure them by touching their arm or patting them on the back.*
  • Keep off technology once in a while and engage in conversations with significant others, children and friends. Interestingly, technology is listed as one of the key contributors towards touch deprivation.

*SAFETY NOTE: It’s important to understand that – depending on a persons preferences and past experiences – unsolicited touch can be emotionally triggering for some people. Therefore, it is always important to check with someone (especially someone you don’t know very well) before reaching out to touch them. i.e. saying “can I give you a hug” rather than going straight in for one.

Further to that, it’s important to also consider any power dynamics that might be at play when requesting consent to touch. Does that person feel comfortable that they could refuse a hug from you if they wanted to?

If in doubt, you can always start off with a good ol’ air five 😄

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Take a moment to reflect upon how you feel about touch.

Following the pandemic, how do you feel about hugs, handshakes and high fives? Understand your boundaries around touch and what is acceptable, and then consider how you can increase the amount of physical contact in your life in a way that makes you feel safe and secure.

Cuddling friends walking away