It’s no secret that physical touch is essential for humans and almost all other beings from the very beginning of life. It’s the reason we so strongly encourage skin to skin contact for newborns almost the moment they’re born. The benefits of these first sweet moments are profound and well documented. Humans and animals alike depend on various forms of physical touch for all kinds of physical and emotional development. We may be most cuddly in our early years but the need for physical touch doesn’t end in infancy.
You’ve likely heard of the 5 love languages, the premise of which suggests that there are 5 primary behaviors (physical touch, quality time, gifts, words of affirmation, and acts of service) that people resonate most with when expressing and experiencing love. It’s used most often by couples but knowing your primary love language(s) and being intuitive to those of the people who matter to you can help to maintain healthy relationships of all kinds. I’ll dive into the rest of the love languages in future posts (so stay tuned), but for today let’s focus on why touch matters. If you’ve never heard of the love languages or don’t know what yours are, consider reading the book to find out more about the concept of love languages and the benefits of implementing them in your life.
Let me be transparent and admit that physical touch is not my primary love language. Far from it, actually. There are times, both personally and professionally, when I recognize the benefit of touch and have to ignore my inner discomfort for the benefit of someone else. If your primary love language isn’t physical touch but your partner’s or friend’s is, you might also find yourself in this boat sometimes. For me, being convinced of the value of physical touch helps me overcome my natural tendency to shy away from it.
What does physical touch do?
Levels of normal and acceptable physical touch vary between countries and cultures but in the United States, we are fairly “touch deprived” and that goes far beyond just intimate physical contact. Compared to other countries, we bring up the rear in rates of hugs, high fives, hand shakes, kisses, and other forms of physical embrace. In many parts of the world, a kiss on the cheek is a common greeting even for strangers. I can feel the collective unease from my fellow American readers right now over that one.
If you’re not someone who knowingly thrives on physical touch, you might be asking yourself “so what?”. But as it turns out, whether you love physical touch or get a little cringey over it, science shows that we lose out big time when we hold back or shy away from physical touch. And If you happen to be religious, which I am a little bit, physical touch is a Christian principle that holds healing power. The Bible is full of references to physical touch in the form of embrace, kisses, washing of feet, and laying of hands for healing.
But what does touch actually accomplish? The benefits are innumerable and sometimes difficult to put into words but here are a few that are pretty concrete:
|Emotions||Touch can be used to convey a myriad of emotions from compassion to anger. Words alone can convey feelings but when combined with physical touch to match, studies show the recipient is better able to understand the implication of what’s being communicated.|
|Infants||This study compared infants who had skin-to-skin contact following birth with those who didn’t and found that they had increased cognitive abilities, better sleep patterns, and better response to stress at 10 years of age.|
|Trust||Physical touch can foster feelings of trust and communication. A study of NBA basketball teams found that teams who exchanged more high fives, fists pumps, and chest bumps had more team wins. They concluded that physical touch increases cooperative behaviors.|
|Soothing||The right kind of physical touch at the right time can be soothing. Children can fall asleep faster when their backs are rubbed or when they’re rocked. Hand holding and stroking at end of life can decrease stress and agitation.|
|Post Partum Depression||Skin to skin contact between a mama and her wee one can release oxytocin in mom which can help reduce symptoms of post-partum depression.|
|The Vagus Nerve||Physical touch stimulates the vagus nerve which serves to slow the nervous system overall. This results in lowered heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of physical and emotional stress.|
|Oxytocin||Touch stimulates release of oxytocin which is the hormone responsible for a lot of our warm, fuzzy feelings. (Oxytocin also plays a role in pain relief, so get to hugging!)|
|General Health||Physical touch has been shown to strengthen the immune system, promote better sleep, and reduce stress.|
What kind of touch is good touch?
I don’t think I need to outline the difference between inappropriate and appropriate physical touch. However, it’s not always obvious what kind of physical touch might be the most beneficial. Or, if you’re like me, you might have to work a little bit at being intentional with physical touch if it doesn’t come quite as second nature to you as it does for others. Here are some ideas for establishing physical touch in a healthy way:
Kids often crave physical touch, especially in their youngest years, but that can fade as they grow older. Don’t be afraid to initiate regular, healthy physical touch. Regular physical touch helps kids stay emotionally bonded to their parents and has been shown to decrease episodes of poor behavior and instances requiring discipline are less. Check out this post for more ways to incorporate positive touch between you and your littles (and not so littles). Even incorporating a hug or other gentle physical touch when working through tough things (think discipline or learning hard lessons) can help diffuse the situation greatly.
Compatibility in a bunch of areas is essential for a functioning relationship, including recognizing each other’s needs when it comes to physical touch. This goes way beyond sexual intimacy, however. Like I shared above, physical touch releases oxytocin. This can come about through cuddling, a back rub, hand holding on a walk, or kisses. Even non-intimate physical touch releases oxytocin and has been shown to boost the immune system, decrease stress, and provide an overall sense of “feel good”. The same concept applies in intimate relationships as it does elsewhere: touch decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and overall stress response so a well-timed hug or back rub may be just what your partner needs at the end of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day and you’re probably just the person for the job.
As a healthcare provider, I’ve worked in a whole slew of different environments including pediatric critical care, post-operative care, and now in a clinic setting. I encounter patients of all kinds every day and have been with many of them during some of the hardest moments of their lives. What I’ve grown to realize is the difference that physical touch can make in these moments. I’ve sat with patients and held their hand while they cried. I’ve placed a hand on their shoulder while delivering hard news. I’ve given hugs to family members that were both celebratory and consoling in nature. If you’re a healthcare provider, I would encourage you not to be afraid to show compassion and empathy to patients through physical touch. They often need that grounding touch in the midst of a sterile environment. There are countless studies on the role that touch plays in establishing trust with patients and reminding them that they are an individual rather than a number.
If we as adults are touch deprived, it’s safe to assume that this phenomenon trickles down to our children as well. Touch is one of the very first senses we explore after birth and eliminating that in the school setting is proven to be detrimental to learning. Establishing healthy physical touch between students and teachers fosters feelings of safety, trust, and care. It helps establish a connection between the students and their educators that reminds them they matter and that their teachers have an individual interest in their successes and failures. Academic and emotional success in school have been tied to feelings of connection that students have with their teachers. Teachers aren’t just educating facts and figures. They’re an integral part of teaching students how to manage interpersonal conflict, how to express emotion in a healthy way, and how to navigate stress.
Establishing physical touch between students and teachers doesn’t have be complex. It’s actually almost unavoidable in the early grades. Those kiddos tend to give hugs with abandon and will cuddle up during story time just as a matter of habit. Middle school and high school is where natural teen angst can set in and physical touch can be even more critical. A hand on the shoulder, a high five, or even a hug can prove to these kids that they’re important, individual, and connected to their environment. I’m no teaching expert and won’t claim to be but this article is an excellent argument for the essential role that physical touch plays in school and, if you’re an educator or simply curious, I would encourage you to check it out.
Last but not least, if everyone around you is lacking in physical touch, that just might mean you are too. Our society is full of stressors, poor posture, too much desk and screen time, and, in general, not enough physical activity. Chances are, you have muscle tension and inflammation that you’re not even aware of. Guess what? Physical touch can help with that too. Massage, whether from a loved one or from a professional, has many proven benefits including the more obvious decreased muscle tension reduced stress. But massage also carries the benefits of improved circulation, increased energy, improved lymphatic flow, decreased heart rate and blood pressure, and improved immune function. According to Mayo Clinic, there is also building evidence that massage can be beneficial in managing things like anxiety, headaches, insomnia, and various forms of chronic pain. So if you can’t convince your spouse or your kid or your friend to start a back rub train with you, I highly suggest that every now and then you treat yourself to a professional massage and see what benefits you find.
I hope this has helped convince you that physical touch truly is an essential part of healthy functioning, both physically and emotionally. I would love to hear other fun, creative ways that you’ve been able to incorporate physical touch with friends, significant others, your kiddos, your students, or your patients because I firmly believe that this will only serve to improve all kinds of relationships across all facets of life. Leave a comment below and send me a message if you’ve got something to share!
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Keltner, D. (2010). Hands on research: The science of touch. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hands_on_research#:~:text=There%20are%20studies%20showing%20that,aka%20%E2%80%9Cthe%20love%20hormone.%E2%80%9D
Burge, K. (2019, August). Benefits of human touch: What is the impact on our health? Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://www.hcf.com.au/health-agenda/body-mind/mental-health/benefit-human-touch
Feldman, R., Rosenthal, Z., & Eidelman, A. (2014). Maternal-Preterm Skin-to-Skin Contact Enhances Child Physiologic Organization and Cognitive Control Across the First 10 Years of Life. Biological Psychiatry, 75(1), 56-64.
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Zaman, M. (2019, June 22). Here’s why human touch is so good for you-and how to get it even if you’re single. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/benefits-of-human-touch