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Touch Is Essential to Human Existence

Counteracting the impact of social distancing.

How important is touch to human beings? It is so critical that it can be the determining factor between life and death. A study in the 1940s separated two groups of infants. Both were provided basic needs such as food and shelter. However, touch was withheld from one group. Sadly, nearly half perished from touch deprivation.

Touch soothes the limbic system. Like a child whose hand is held by that of a parent’s in a moment of fear, it offers a calming signal to the amygdala of psychological safety. No words have to be spoken to offer relief.

The Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh speaks eloquently to this teaching. A mother does not have to know why her baby is crying. By offering touch and bringing the baby into her arms, she immediately lessens the infant’s suffering.

In my youth, I attended an after-school program. During homework time, the staff guided us through our assignments. One of the women represented more of a maternal figure. She would rub our backs in circular motions when we were stuck on a mathematical problem, for example.

Years later, I realized she was effective in helping us learn because of that touch. The circular motion sends a soothing signal to the fight/flight center. The brain then releases chemicals that support learning. When the body is relaxed, the mind is adaptable and open to solutions.

There is significant data to support “healing touch.” When one receives a welcome touch, the sensory receptors on the skin send signals up the spinal cord to the brain. This initiates:

  • A reduction in cortisol levels in response to stress
  • A release of “feel good” hormones: dopamine for pleasure and memory; endorphins for relief from pain, oxytocin, the bonding or love hormone; serotonin for stabilizing mood

The body re-balances to function optimally increasing one’s ability to experience more positive emotions and greater well-being.

Positive emotions:

  • Decrease stress, depression, blood pressure, and heart rate
  • Increase compassion and meaningful connection to others
  • Build resilience to better handle future adversity with optimism
  • Broaden the mind’s perspective from a myopic view of problems

Can touch change our behavior? In a study by The Touch Research Institute, researchers compared French adolescents to American adolescents. The Americans showed more aggressive behavior physically and verbally. When they were given massage therapy, the violence decreased while empathy increased, also attributed to a boost in serotonin levels.

Touch is a universal language without the need for actual words or the ability to understand words. I used touch to provide my mom comfort through Alzheimer's disease so that she felt connected to me. Those with this illness may feel agitated or fearful. Touch provides relief from uncertainty, anxiety, and grounds loved ones to the here and now.

How can we counteract the remnants of having been socially distant from others for a prolonged period of time? The following steps help minimize touch deprivation:

  • Give longer hugs. A good barometer is when you can sense the other person’s heart beating. In about 20 seconds, you will feel lighter, and your heartbeats may even entrain to one another.

  • Hug your pet. Petting also produces benefits from touch. Have your pet lie across your chest, or if he/she is too big, find other ways to cuddle.

  • Hold hands with your partner or children when you take walks. For fun, let your touch recipient know, you are intentionally sending soothing signals to their brain! It'll surely bring about a smile.

  • Dedicate self-care time to enjoy professional massages as part of your touch therapy. It offers these same benefits including leading to restful and restorative sleep.

Following are alternatives to the above or additions to your touch practice:

  • Visualization: Imagine hugging a loved one, even if the person is on the other side of the world or no longer here physically, to trigger the same chemical responses in the brain that touch produces in the body.

  • Create in your mind moments of meaningful connection by seeing yourself walking hand in hand with God or a spiritual guide that offers you peace and belonging. You can verbalize whatever you desire.

  • At the close of Zooms with family or friends, invite them to put their hands on-screen and close their eyes. Place internal focus on sending love, appreciation, and well-wishes through the hands. This "togetherness" reinforces bonding, offers encouragement, and reminds us that we are not alone in this.

As touch is essential to human life, let's be intentional about touch care. Let's value the benefits of the smallest of touch from a pet leaning into you to being mindful of a gentle wind as it passes between your fingers. There are always opportunities for touch, by becoming aware using all of your senses, whether you are the giver or receiver.


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