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The Science of Intimate Touching: Why We Need It

Physical touch is one of the most important aspects of intimate human relationships. A nice warm hug can feel like a refuge at the end of a hard day. A rub on the back from your favorite person can help ease feelings of nervousness. We convey our support, love, and compassion for one another through physical touch. It's a universal language of love that we all respond to since birth. 

Skin-to-skin contact between babies and their mothers is now recognized as a hugely important element of childhood development because of its healing impact. Studies in orphanages also demonstrate the healing power of touch, as children who are given more eye contact and physical touch have healthier development, less aggression, and less illness.

Touch is such a large part of our lives as human beings, but why exactly is it so beneficial to us? Science shows that touch not only feels good, but it has many benefits for overall human health. Let's dive deep into the science of intimate touch and why it is so important for a happy and healthy life.

There are many emotional and physical health benefits that come from giving and receiving physical touch. In fact, touch is directly correlated with mental and physical wellbeing according to research. Touch stimulates the vagus nerve in the body, which has a critical role in calming the nervous system. The vagus nerve is one of the 12 cranial nerves and is the overseer of many bodily functions, such as the parasympathetic nervous system, the immune system, and the digestive system. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it sends signals to the body that help promote relaxation by slowing the heart rate, decreasing stress-hormone levels, and lowering blood pressure.

The Benefits of Touch

Holding hands, hugging, cuddling, and other forms of touching are all beneficial for our health. However, research shows that touching with more pressure, such as a hug or back rub, is more beneficial than light pressure. The reason behind this is that pressured touch stimulates pressure receptions, which induces the release of many beneficial chemicals. Physical touch increases oxytocin, which is often called the ‘love hormone’ because it is linked with the warm feelings of being around and embracing those you love and trust. The release of oxytocin is part of what makes hugging and cuddling so gratifying.

Regularly engaging in physical contact with those you love can help increase oxytocin levels and relax the nervous system. Touch can also make our bodies more resistant to pain, as it increases the production of serotonin, which is our body's antidepressant and anti-pain chemical.

Touch can also aid the immune system. Research has found that massage increases ‘natural killer cells’, or the white blood cells at the front lines of the immune system that kill viral cells. The estimated reasoning for this is that touch decreases cortisol levels through stimulation of the vagus nerve, and cortisol kills these white blood cells. Getting a regular massage monthly, either from a professional or a loved one, can boost the immune system. In fact, hugs can help fight off colds. During a study conducted on the power of touch, a cold germ was injected into participants and found that those who had more hugs had a better immune response to the virus. Consensual touch and hugs from loved ones also prove to help people perform better in stressful tasks, such as public speaking.

Regular massage can also improve alertness; a study found that massage therapy reduces anxiety and decreases the alpha and beta states of the brain, which increases alertness. Massages also aid in restoring and improving sleep patterns. Due to the soothing effect of touch, the body responds to massage by spending more time in REM sleep. Rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, is the phase of sleep where dreaming occurs. This phase of sleep is known to benefit learning ability, memory, and mood.

Getting Your Daily Dose of Touch

During these unprecedented and difficult times, many of us are spending most of our time alone. It has been an isolating time for many of us, and some of us may find ourselves craving personal contact with a loved one. Although person-to-person physical contact is great, the benefits of self-touch are just as beneficial! Self-massage has all the positive effects that person-to-person massage has.

These effects can be amplified when self-massage is done daily, which can provide your body and mind with the dose of touch it needs.

  • Giving yourself a self-massage is a way to offer stress relief and self-care. And we all know that keeping your immune system strong is especially important these days, and self-touch can support you in doing just that!
  • Weighted blankets are also a great way to simulate touch, as they stimulate the pressure receptors just as massage does - activating the vagus nerve and calming the nervous system. Weighted blankets are also a great way to improve sleep and relieve stress.
  • Yoga is also an activating way to give your body the benefit of touch simulation. Yoga stimulates the pressure receptors in the body through the pressure between the mat and the body.

Recognizing that physical touch is a necessary human need is very important for maintaining mental and physical health. Humans are primarily social beings, and our need for physical touch reflects this. Giving ourselves and those we love attention and touch can help improve physical, mental, and emotional health. Touch can give us the extra boost we need during these stressful and isolating times and can bring us back to connectedness.