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How We're Wired for Touch

How We're Wired for Touch

With COVID-19 keeping many of us away from loved ones, friends, extended family, and even new romantic partners, we have never been so collectively starved for physical touch. But our decline in physical touch didn't start with the pandemic. Experts have reported a decline in hugs for over a decade. We are more apprehensive than ever to embrace and touch the people in our lives for fear that it could be unwanted or misinterpreted, whether that's the workplace, the classroom, or even out with friends.

In spite of this recent trend, over 30 million years of evolution has primed us for touch. Not only is it something that buoys our spirits and makes us feel less alone, but science tells us we could slowly perish without it. 

A Universal Langauge 

Touch is the first language we learn and the only truly universal communication that humans share, if you don’t count mathematics. Babies who are not held and touched regularly do not thrive. The absence of physical contact is as severe as withholding food in their development.

Skin-to-skin contact between babies and their mothers is now the standard of care in neonatal units worldwide because of its healing impact. Studies in orphanages demonstrate the same conclusions: babies who are given more eye contact and physical touch develop better and have less illness. How tragic to be the infant in the control group.

It isn’t just in babies that the power of touch transforms our emotional, mental and physical health. People suffering from physical ailments like fibromyalgia experienced a significant reduction in pain with the addition of therapeutic touch. In a study of Alzheimer’s patients, a minimal addition of therapeutic touch for 20 minutes reduces both the severity and frequency of behavioral symptoms of the disease. Patients became present when touched for only five minutes at a time.

What Are the Benefits?

Research shows that physical touch makes us more confident, cooperative, calm, compassionate, and boosts our immune system.* Even brief contact produces immediate changes in how people react and process information.

  • Students who are touched on their back or arm by their teachers were twice as likely to participate in class.
  • Human touch from a doctor to a patient actually leaves people with the impression that their visit lasted twice as long.
  • In the sports arena, all the high fives and body bumping is actually improving athletic performance.
  • Touching the people we live with, even a brief massage is correlated with decreased depression symptoms and stronger relationships.

Touch wakes up the prefrontal areas of our brain which control our ability to relax and emote. Holding someone creates a surge of oxytocin, a hormone that helps create a sensation of trust, and to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Even a touch to the shoulder sends a message to the brain that is heard louder than words of support. 

Touch tells us that there is someone at our backs to share the load which is one of the primary impetuses for human relationships. ‘We are hardwired to distribute our problem solving across brains’ according to James Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.

How Can You Incorporate More Touch Into Your Life?

Partnered Touch

Nowhere is the language of touch more powerful than in your own home if you have a partner in your life. Seemingly small gestures like a kiss goodbye every morning translate into better traffic safety and increased earnings for the one being kissed.

My husband and I have instituted a new ritual upon returning home each evening of holding each other tightly, inhaling and grounding each other in our scent and resetting our breathing together. It only takes a few minutes but has seriously reduced the irritability that evening used to provoke. I have worked to incorporate this holding in my relationships with my children and have seen similar results. Their response to my physical approach tells more than their words ever could about what is happening with them and between us.

Spend a few days consciously aware of how many times you are touched in the day and how many times you reach out to touch someone else.

Notice how even the smallest of physical exchanges impact how you feel in the moment and with the person you connected with. I envy the European cultures ease in leaning forward and brushing cheeks with almost everyone they meet. Becoming more fluent in the language of touch may be all we need to transform our lives.

Solo Touch

Over 40% of adults in the United States do not live with a partner or spouse, and this combined with stay-at-home orders and our cultural aversion to touch leaves many with a need for physical contact left unmet. It can be difficult to cope with a lack of touch, so here are some creative ways to give yourself touch therapy: 

  • Slowly caress your skin with a feather or soft fabric
  • Take a long bath or shower
  • Engage in self-massage by rubbing your shoulders, feet, arms, and more with lotion or a massage oil (like our massage oil candles)
  • Meditate to focus and deepen the sensation
  • Apply different temperatures like heat or cold, or varying amounts of pressure when you touch your skin
  • Schedule a virtual date with a romantic partner and talk about the types of touch you would like to give and receive 

Once COVID-19 restrictions ease to allow more businesses to reopen, you can make an appointment with a certified massage therapist or hire a professional cuddler – yes, that's a real thing!

Sources

How Touching Your Partner Can Make Both of You Healthier, Healthline
Let's touch: why physical connection between human beings matters, The Guardian
The 3 Biggest Advantages of Human Touch May Surprise You, Plushcare