If I asked people what they’d missed most during this period of lockdown, I know the majority of people would say being able to hug people, to hold their hand, to have proper human contact. Because it’s an innate need in all of us and having that stripped away can give us a strange feeling of disconnection. Touch gives us a connection that words simply cannot.; it attunes us to each other.
Humans need physical contact. It’s a fact. Studies have shown that a large percentage of people have recently felt deprived of that touch and that deprivation can lead to other issues such as anxiety and depression.
Just think how much better we feel after a hug, a hands-on therapy session. It’s not just the fact that the physical discomfort and the stresses that you may have arrived with are feeling so much better, it’s also to do with the way that our bodies and minds react to that positive touch.
Dr Tiffany Field at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami has undertaken studies into human touch. And what she’s found is this:
- Touch deprivation can lead to issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep disturbance and post-traumatic stress symptoms.
- Stimulation of the skin through touch is essential to wellbeing and health (well, we knew this one already!!)
When you move the skin, you’re stimulating pressure receptors in your skin and that helps to calm and slow your nervous system. This includes slowing the heart rate, blood pressure and brainwaves and reduces the stress hormone cortisol.
The reduction of stress hormones can save immune cells, giving our immune systems a massive boost – which is SO needed!
So What Can You Do If You Can’t Currently Access Positive Touch Therapies?
Exercise is massively helpful. As Professor Field found, even the gentlest of exercise will move the skin too, and that means that you’re still stimulating the pressure receptors in your skin and calming your nervous system. You don’t have to do a 10 mile hike or a Joe Wicks’ workout, just walking round your garden or around the home will be enough to activate those pressure receptors. Even some gentle stretches would have a positive effect.
There are also ways to ‘self-soothe’. Positive touch is innate in us from birth as touch is the first sense to develop when we are in the womb, before sight, taste or smell; we know how babies crave a loving, nurturing touch but they also have to learn to self-soothe when that’s not always possible. It’s not as good as actual physical touch but self-soothing may be the best we currently have.
If you have long hairs on your arms or legs, this can be really helpful… Try very slowly (and I mean really slowly!) and gently stroking these hairs on your arms or legs. These are called C-tactile fibres and they respond really well to light touch and slow strokes. It is these fibres that are believed to be responsible for feelings of calm and wellbeing. Slow and gentle touch on these hair fibres has been found to send a signal to the part of the brain that processes emotion and pain. A great way of self-soothing and calming your nervous system!
Also, stroking an animal or pet, taking a long warm soak in a bubble bath and most definitely talking to people (preferably in the flesh but virtually works too!), building and maintaining that human connection through positive words and body language can be great ways to self-soothe when we most need that comfort and that ‘feel good’ connection.
I know we are all longing for the day that regular positive touch becomes part of our normal everyday lives (it is coming!) and it will be even more precious and vital to our health and wellbeing than ever before.