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The Importance of Touch for Physical and Mental Health

power of touch

COVID-19 has brought considerable changes to our daily lives. We might now be working from home. If children attend school in person, they wear masks, and their desks are probably shielded with plexiglass partitions. Fast-food workers might place our to-go bags on trays before handing us our food, so there is very little chance of the customer and employee accidentally touching.

We miss a lot from our pre-COVID life, like getting together with friends and seeing extended family. We miss going to the movies and concerts. Most of all, we miss human contact. We miss shaking hands, and we miss hugs. We have become “touch-deprived.”

According to Tiffany Field, Ph.D., “we were already a touch-deprived society before [the pandemic].” Dr. Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, references research that has been done in airports, studying behavior in lines. Previously, there was touching. People held hands. Now, we are all on our cell phones.

Problems Caused by Touch Deprivation

Touch deprivation, also called skin hunger, can cause mental and physical health issues. According to an article published on Nordic Cuddle’s website, a cuddle therapy provider located in the United Kingdom, people in Western cultures tended to be less “touch-friendly” even before the COVID-19 pandemic due to technology, mobile devices, and fears of allegations of harassment.

Lack of positive touch is associated with mental and physical health concerns, including the following:

  • Aggressive behavior, both verbal and physical
  • Body image disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • High levels of stress
  • Loneliness (signs could include prolonged hot showers and baths, wrapping up in blankets, and clinging to pillows and pets)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Alexithymia (a condition that prevents people from expressing and interpreting their emotions)
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Fear of attachment

Benefits of Touch

The importance of touch was discussed in a recent article in Time magazine, “The Corona Virus Outbreak Keeps Humans from Touching: Here’s Why That’s So Stressful,” published April 10, 2020. According to the article, people need platonic touch daily. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, says that positive touch, like hugging your life partner or linking arms with a friend, reduces stress. Other health benefits include a strengthened immune system, improved digestion, deeper sleep, and an enhanced ability to empathize with others.

Examples of positive touch include a hug, a handshake, a high-five, or a pat on the back. In fact, touch is so essential to human development that part of the treatment for premature babies includes skin-to-skin contact between babies and their parents, called “Kangaroo care.”

According to Grace L. Heer, a certified cuddlist who works in Southern California, positive touch increases levels of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin in the brain. These increased hormone levels decrease anxiety and stress levels and can lower the heart rate and reduce blood pressure. 

(Professional cuddling is a holistic therapy that provides clients with safe touch. Sessions could include hand-holding, hugs, spooning, conversation, or shared silence.)

How to Find Positive Touch During the Pandemic

Fortunately, there are ways to increase the amount of touch we receive, even during the pandemic. Sales of weighted blankets have increased during COVID-19, and people have started cuddling with stuffed animals and pets. Pet adoptions have increased during the pandemic as well. According to an article in the Washington Post, animal shelters, nonprofit rescues, private breeders, and pet stores all say that there is more demand for puppies and dogs than they can meet.

In a New York Times article, Dr. Field says that one way to get touch in your life in a very safe manner during the pandemic is a treatment she describes as “moving the skin.” Pressure receptors are located beneath the skin. Instead of merely stroking your skin, move your skin firmly enough to cause temporary indentations. She also recommends giving yourself a scalp massage, doing abdominal crunches, wearing compression clothing, or even rolling around on a carpeted floor or yoga mat. In addition, she says that yoga can function as a form of self-massage (“What All That Touch Deprivation Is Doing to Us,” New York Times, Oct. 6, 2020).

Due to the pandemic, Heer has been offering virtual cuddle sessions, leading participants in self-soothing techniques that boost oxytocin without physical contact. For example, she leads participants in performing mirror exercises. Participants complete the same movements at the same time, mirroring each other over Zoom. Doing the same movement at the same time, she explains, creates an emotional connection. Oxytocin levels in the brain are increased as they would be with physical contact because of how the neurons fire in the brain.

Touch is vital to our physical and mental well-being. At Enlightened Solutions, we offer many holistic treatment modalities that utilize touch, including acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage, and reiki. These therapeutic techniques are valuable in treating substance use disorders as well as mental health issues. Enlightened Solutions is a licensed co-occurring treatment center, meaning that we can treat substance use disorders and the mental health issues that frequently accompany addiction. Our treatment program is rooted in the 12-Step philosophy. It includes one-on-one counseling, group therapy, and many alternative therapies, including art and music therapy, family constellation therapy, yoga and meditation, and equine-assisted therapy. We are located near the southern New Jersey shore, and we offer each client a customized treatment program. Our focus is on healing the whole person rather than merely treating the addiction. If you seek relief from an addiction to drugs or alcohol, please call us at (833) 801-5483.