With the necessary but often emotionally devastating social isolation that comes with a global pandemic, many people find themselves longing for the comfort of human touch. A hug from a good friend, a firm handshake to close a business deal, a pat on the back to say you’ve done a good job. All those seemingly insignificant moments of human contact that you may have always taken for granted have suddenly become extremely important.
But what is it about human touch that we find so comforting and reassuring? And why do we need to be touched to enjoy the most robust physical and mental health possible?
The research on human touch is fascinating. Tiffany Field, a developmental psychologist and researcher at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, pioneered the use of massage to stimulate growth and development in premature infants. Dr. Field’s touch therapy program, which began in 1982, was up and running a full decade before the medical community accepted massage and touch therapy as a treatment for premature infants.
Today neonatal massage is routinely prescribed for premature infants and cuts hospital stays by almost a week, resulting in an eye popping savings of about $10,000 per infant and $4.7 billion in savings annually in the United States alone. Dr. Field and her team of researchers found that pressure receptors in the skin respond to human touch, stimulating brain activity which leads to a lowering of blood pressure, deeper sleep, makes infants much less irritable and helps not only their physical growth, but their mental development as well.
Grownups Need Touch Too
Of course it makes sense that infants and small children would require and respond to human touch, but what about adults? Many of us have been conditioned to think that adults only respond to sensual, sexual touch. But research shows that going without regular human touch of any kind, from that pat on the back, to a friend’s hug, to the workplace handshake, can have serious negative effects.
Scientists have identified a special nerve ending in the skin that responds to any type of gentle touch. When these nerve endings are stimulated, they send signals to the brain, and the pituitary gland releases the hormone oxytocin, sometimes known as the “love hormone.”
Touch also stimulates pressure receptors located in the skin, sending signals to your vagus nerve, which in turn slows your heart rate and decreases your blood pressure. Both actions work to improve heart health. This is why a massage or even a shoulder or foot rub from a loved one is so relaxing and soothing. Plus gentle touch, even from someone you don’t know, has been shown by researchers to reduce feelings of social isolation.
Skin Hunger Is Real
If you are deprived of human touch long enough, you may well develop a condition known as skin hunger, touch deprivation or touch starvation which can lead to increased anxiety, disrupted sleep and can even worsen depression. But what can you do if you live alone and are prevented from having physical human contact right now?
One idea is to get a pet, such as a dog or cat, that enjoys being rubbed or stroked. This is not an ideal substitute for human contact but research shows that petting a dog or cat is soothing and comforting and can lower stress.
Another idea is to do self-massage. Massaging your own arms and legs with a scented massage oil will stimulate pressure receptors in the skin, relax your muscles and give you a feeling of wellbeing. Touch is so powerful that even your own touch can reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and make you feel calmer and more relaxed.