Importance Of Physical Touch, And How To Cope With Its Absence
From giving a new person you meet a handshake, to hugging a friend you haven’t seen in a while, touch is deeply entrenched in human beings’ social lives. It is one of the most fundamental ways of relating to each other for humans. It is now popularly known that physical touch is one of the five love languages of humans. We associate touch with emotional closeness. When there is a lack of touch from another person, we perceive them to be emotionally distant. Humans are wired to respond to touch, we have specialized nerve fibres in our skin that detect and emotionally respond to touch. These sensors are known as C-tactile fibres or afferents and are specifically sensitive to social touch from people and the caress of a loved one. Let’s look at why touch is so important for humans.
Read More: Why Love is important?
Importance of Physical Touch:
1. Touch is a Developmental Requirement:
The classic study by the psychologist Harlow showcased the importance of contact comfort. In the study, he placed infant monkeys into an enclosure with two ‘mothers’ – one made of wires and straws which provided them with food, and another covered with rubber and soft cloth. The study found that the infant monkeys preferred the soft cloth mother over the wire one, despite the former not providing any food. This demonstrated the importance of the comfort that a soft touch provides. Similarly, physical touch is also very important for the proper and timely development of humans. Infants cannot survive without skin-to-skin contact from caregivers.
2. Touch is an Emotional Requirement:
Forms of affection such as hugs, pats, cuddles, or gentle caresses, are crucial in human relationships. They give us a sense of security and safety. Touch can act as a tool to communicate feelings of empathy, love, trust, and gratitude. It also causes the brain to release oxytocin, which is the key chemical involved in emotional bonding with others.
3. Touch is a Physical Requirement:
Touch, for humans, has significant physical benefits as well. It calms the nervous centre and lowers blood pressure, heartbeat, and cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body. It does so by stimulating pressure receptors that carry signals to the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the rest of the body. Touch also has a painkilling, or analgesic effect. Physical affection can boost immunity and ward off illness by releasing feel-good chemicals in the brain such as dopamine and serotonin.
In recent years, social distancing, quarantining, and social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in a loneliness epidemic. Going long durations without receiving any skin-to-skin contact is termed as ‘touch starvation’ or ‘skin hunger’. This deprivation of touch can cause severe emotional distress and even immune system diseases. It can also affect the intimacy and social skills of a person. Feelings of loneliness and depression, fatigue, problems sleeping, increased anxiety and stress are some common indicators of touch deprivation.
As humans, we are wired to crave touch. But in some circumstances, constant contact with your partner, a friend, or a family member may not be available. In such times, we can try to replicate physical affection and cope with skin hunger in the following ways.
Ways of Coping With Touch Starvation
1. Use Weighted blankets
A weighted blanket can mimic the feeling of getting a hug. It may help to wrap yourself in a weighted blanket even if you are not cold as it feels warm and encloses your body, much like a tight hug or cuddling.
2. Get a Massage
Getting a massage satiates the craving for touch, and simultaneously provides therapeutic benefits too. It eases depression, increases attentiveness, and enhances immune system functionality. In case you do not have access to massage therapy, massaging or caressing your own body can stimulate the C-tactile fibres and the vagus nerve, resulting in the same positive effects of touch as by another person. A self-massage can help you relax, de-stress, and calm your nerves in the absence of physical comfort from a loved one.
Read more about Therapy
3. Get Spa Treatments
Spending a day at the spa can also satisfy your need for touch in the absence of a close friend or loved one. Even smaller treatments, such as getting a manicure, a pedicure, or even just a head wash can prove to be helpful.
4. Play with your Pets
Even though they are not humans, pets can ease some of your touch starvation symptoms. Playing with your pets is also a form of interaction and if you spend ample time petting them, it can boost your oxytocin levels.
5. Take a Dance Class
A lot of slow dances are centred around a lot of skin-to-skin contact. Joining a class for such a dance form can help you satisfy your desire for physical touch by another human. Dancing (and singing) are activities that are good for increasing the release of happy chemicals in your brain in general.
6. Use a lot of Pillows
Having a lot of soft surfaces on your bed while you sleep, especially a body pillow can somewhat replace another person as a cuddle buddy. They can help you feel relaxed, safe, and comfortable, and also reduce stress.
Also Read: The Psychology of Hugs
7. Listen to ASMR videos
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It refers to the pleasant sensation that is triggered in the body by some auditory or visual stimuli. There are several such videos available on the internet, created by ‘ASMRtists’. By listening to these, you can ease the need for physical touch.
8. Recount Past Experiences
Some research has suggested that touch plays an important role in memory. Thus, intently thinking of or replaying past experiences in which you received physical affection can help in re-living the sensation, and calm your desire for touch at the moment.
9. Take a long, warm shower
Standing under warm running water can also provide the same comfort as a gentle caress from another human. The temperature of the water and the sensation of it moving along your skin stimulate the feeling of an embrace by a loved one.
Physical touch by our near and dear ones is a primal requirement of humans. Going without it for long durations can have detrimental consequences not only for our mental health but also our physical health. But in circumstances such as a pandemic, in which physical contact can worsen the situation, there are ways for us to cope without actual human touch. However, once it is safe to do so, it is advisable to obtain and also provide physical affection to our loved ones. Simple head pats, gentle caresses, and hugs go a long way in strengthening our relationships.