Touch is wired into our neurological system. It impacts all aspects of our lives and is essential to our well being. It helps us to manage stress, decrease inflammation and boost our mood by releasing feel good hormones while decreasing stress related hormones.
Starved for touch? The benefit of every handshake, pat on the back, hand holding, and hug, cannot be underestimated. The past two years have pushed people to adapt in ways we never thought would be necessary. The impact of quarantines and social distancing on our psyche is significant. Add to this a face covering that restricts one more area of our humanity and an already volatile mixture of emotions takes little to ignite. What is it about the most basic touches that benefit us so much? It’s not in your imagination if you are yearning for physical touch. Research shows that our need for touch impacts how we communicate, our thought processes, and can activate physiological responses. Humans are social beings and our physical and mental well-being depends on touch to a large degree.
Studies on the importance of early childhood development and touch share just how important touch is for humans. It helps establish attachment, cognitive activity, shapes social reward systems, and helps regulate emotions. Study after study has demonstrated that touch is a powerful force in helping young children manage their distress. This is largely due to how the brain reacts to touch, releasing natural opioids (check out our post, here, about opioid receptors in our bodies). Touch stimulates pathways for oxytocin, the natural antidepressant serotonin, and the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine. Touch consequently results in feelings of calm and reward, which in childhood, can help build healthy relationships and social patterns that are carried into adulthood. As adults, the ways we experience touch shifts from our childhood, but social interactions like handshakes and hugs when we greet others help fulfill our need for touch.
We’d be hard-pressed to find anybody that said Zooming or Facetiming others over the past two years compared to the “real thing”, but many likely agree that the tools at least provided some form of contact with others. While seeing and hearing our loved ones and coworkers brought some respite during quarantine, studies have shown that our perception that it just wasn’t quite the same as in-person interaction was because we so heavily rely on tactile interactions and are acutely aware of how we feel after prolonged deprivation. Other studies have also shown that touch may be even more crucial during stressful moments, highlighting just how beneficial touch can be in helping humans regulate emotions.
Are you experiencing touch deprivation?
Although there is no specific way to determine if you are touch starved (also called touch deprived, touch hunger, skin hunger, or touch depression), but you may notice yourself feeling lonely, anxious, stressed, have trouble sleeping, or even experiencing uneasiness in your relationships. Some sources say that you may even notice yourself trying to compensate for the lack of human touch by wrapping up in blankets, snuggling your animals more than normal, or taking baths. All of these actions help bring us feelings of comfort and warmth, which can somewhat mimic what we feel when we experience human touch.
How does our body react to physical touch?
Research has shown that positive touch (sensual touch wasn’t the focus of the studies we have shared), activates parts of our brain, including the orbitofrontal cortex. This area of the brain is involved with emotional and social behaviors, as well as learning and decision making. There is also an entire system of nerve fibers, called C-tactile afferents, that exists to recognize any form of gentle touch, demonstrating just how important touch is to our bodies. When we experience touch, our body releases oxytocin, a natural opioid often referred to as a “feel-good” hormone that helps produce feelings of safety and love. It can also help build feelings of trust and empathy. All these emotions are essential to human relationships, whether in a family setting, amongst friends, but also in business relationships and when interacting with people in everyday settings.
When a person experiences touch, pressure receptors in the body are activated. These receptors interact with the vagus nerve (one of twelve cranial nerves in the body that connect the brain to the rest of the body. The cranial nerves provide sensory or motor function information to the body. This then results in the body better being able to regulate blood pressure, heart rate, and even calm our nervous system.
How do we cope with touch deprivation during the Covid-19 pandemic?
We all require touch. Without it we feel alone, angry and disconnected. For far too many it’s been too long since we felt a pat on the back, a hand in ours, or a hug.
While we still need to socially distance and limit contact, there are still things we can do to counteract the feelings of touch deprivation and bring about a better sense of community and support:
- Meet new people online. Technology provides many ways for online contact. Try video chat or virtual exercise classes or book clubs.
- Wave to neighbors or passersby. Many of us take a daily walk. Try waving and maybe even meeting new people, from a physical distance, of course.
- Snuggle your animals. This may be something you’d already found yourself doing to help cope with loneliness- and it’s a great idea. Studies have shown that it also helps your body release oxytocin and can relieve stress, relieve pain, and lessen anxiety.
- Host an online dinner. Invite family and friends to share a meal via a video app like Skype or FaceTime.
- Connect via text and email. The written word is powerful and learning to tap into your emotions through writing can be incredibly cathartic. Texting is a great way to send a quick message that helps boost somebody’s day or shares that you may need a little support.
- Talk with neighbors outside. Chat at a safe distance from a porch or backyard.
- Try new outdoor group activities. Some group activities let you be with others without the risk involved in close quarters or touching. Try classes that involve physical distancing like yoga, painting, or tai chi.