The healing power of touch
Holding hands, hugging, cuddling – most of us can’t explain precisely why these gestures are so important to us; we just know that they feel good. Our sense of touch is one of the main ways that we experience the world around us.
As infants, skin-to-skin contact was one of the first ways we bonded and communicated with our caregivers. Throughout our childhood years of experimentation and discovery, we learned that touch plays a vital role in our interpersonal relationships. Physical contact can strengthen your emotional bonds with the people in your life, but it can also impact your personal health. Your sense of touch, when used to connect with others, can cultivate a potent form of personal healing.
The benefits of human touch have been studied for decades. Over the years, researchers have found that physical contact between people who trust each other can positively affect both physical and mental health. Specifically, positive touch can:
- Improve your heart health. People who often hug their spouses or significant others are likely to have lower heart rates and blood pressure, according to a 2005 study published in Biological Psychology. Lower blood pressure means a decreased risk for stroke or heart disease. The study also found that partners who hugged each other more frequently had higher levels of oxytocin, often called the “feel-good hormone.”
- Combat the effects of stress. According to a 2014 study from Carnegie Mellon University, the social support that you get from hugging can actually counteract the increased vulnerability to infection caused by stress. By upping the frequency of hugs with people that you trust, you can decrease the harmful effects that stress has on your body.
- Connect to your loved ones. Showing emotional support through physical touch, such as squeezing your partner’s arm or holding their hand, has emotional benefits for you as well. A 2012 study by the University of California’s Department of Psychology found that the reward-related region of the brain was significantly more active when subjects used touch to give support to their partners. People on both sides of the interaction experienced positive emotions and a stronger connection with each other.
- Relieve pain. This may seem like a no-brainer when you think about the availability of massage treatments for back and muscle pain, but the effects of physical touch as a pain reliever go beyond the benefits of massage therapy. A 2017 study published in Scientific Reports determined that when two romantic partners are touching, and one of them experiences a slight pain, the physical touch actually reduces the feeling of pain.
- Give security. Sometimes all it takes is a hug from a loved one to soothe and comfort us during a moment of panic or fear. “Even fleeting and seemingly trivial instances of interpersonal touch may help people to deal more effectively with concern,” explains psychological scientist Sander Koole of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in an interview with the Association for Psychological Science. “Our findings show that people may still find security through interpersonal touch, even in the absence of symbolic meaning derived from religious beliefs or life values.”
“Most of us, whatever our relationship status, need more human contact than we’re getting. Compared with other cultures, we live in a touch-phobic society that’s made affection with anyone but loved ones taboo,” says psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, PhD, director of DePauw University’s Touch and Emotion Lab in an interview with the Huffington Post.
While reading this article, you may have stopped to think about the abundance – or lack – of physical touch in your own life. So how do you go about increasing your “touch quotient”?
- Hug freely. Hugs don’t have to be confined to your significant others. Embracing your friends, family members, and even pets in a giant hug can give you a satisfying feeling of anxiety and stress relief, and you may be surprised at how much they appreciate the gesture. Just make sure that the person – or animal – that you’re hugging is completely comfortable with the physical contact.
- Massage therapy. In addition to providing physical comfort and pain relief, massage therapy has been associated with increased attentiveness, decreased depression, and enhanced immune function. A 2004 study from the University of Miami School of Medicine looked at the effects of massage therapy on breast cancer patients and found that massage therapy had the power to reduce anxiety, depression, and anger. Long-term massage therapy treatment increased levels of dopamine and serotonin, two mood-regulating neurotransmitters that help relieve stress and anxiety.
Physical touch can impact our human experience profoundly. Little things like a pat on the shoulder, a scalp massage during a haircut, or a quick hug goodbye have the cumulative potential to improve our mood and overall quality of life. As you go through your day, be mindful of opportunities to support or comfort the people around you with a quick touch. Your relationships and your personal health will be all the better for it.
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