The importance of touch

Rena Walker gives a kinesiology treatment to daughter Lucy

Sitting in a café last week and glancing at the occupants at surrounding tables, I was struck by the number of people looking at their phones rather than interacting with their fellow occupants.

It reminded me of an article I read observing behaviour of people at an airport.  It was written by Tiffany Field, a researcher who is considered a leading authority on touch and touch therapy with 40 years of experience in the field. She stated in the past she would have seen people hugging and napping on each other, but was surprised to see that people were now looking their phones instead of touching or speaking. This article predated the risk of infection from COVID-19.

There are numerous studies reporting the benefits of touch for physical and mental wellbeing.  It’s believed that when you’re touched, pressure receptors are stimulated which in turn increase the activity of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is responsible for a variety of internal organ functions, including; digestion, heart rate, breathing, cardiovascular activity and reflex actions like coughing, swallowing and sneezing.

When the vagus nerve is stimulated there’s an increase in serotonin, the body’s natural antidepressant and pain reliever.  Cortisol levels decrease. Cortisol is your stress hormone that is known to destroy natural killer cells – which are important for immune system function, by killing viral and bacterial cells.  When cortisol levels decrease, natural killer cells are conserved thus enhancing immune system function.

One study showed that after being injected with a cold virus people who received more hugs had a better immune response.  Other research showed that even simple eye contact and a pat on the back from the doctor helped healing.

It’s ironic that having to isolate and social distance to avoid infection from COVID-19, means we have missed out on such a simple, cheap and scientifically proven method to enhance our immune system.

It’s no surprise that the prevalence of depression and anxiety has increased over the past 2 years.  Studies using PET scans showed a calming of brain waves in response to stress, when the participants hand was held.  The results were better if the hand was a loved one’s, but there was still a difference when it was a stranger’s hand.

A study at Berkley’s Greater Good Science Ceent set out to find if compassion could be communicated through touch.  They put strangers on either side of a barrier.  One person put their arm through the barrier while the other was given a series emotions they had to communicate with a one second touch. The first person then had to guess the emotion being conveyed.

“Given the number of emotions being considered, the odds of guessing the right emotion by chance were about eight percent. But remarkably, participants guessed compassion correctly nearly 60 percent of the time. Gratitude, anger, love, fear—they got those right more than 50 percent of the time as well.

We had various gender combinations in the study, and I feel obligated to disclose two gender differences we found: When a woman tried to communicate anger to a man, he got zero right—he had no idea what she was doing. And when a man tried to communicate compassion to a woman, she didn’t know what was going on!”


The amount of pressure in the touch also can make a difference. Heart rate and blood pressure decrease with a moderate pressure, as in a hug, whereas a light stroking pressure has the reverse affect, often because many people feel like they’re being tickled.

Studies of brain waves during touch show more theta waves (indicates relaxation) with moderate pressure and a light pressure increases beta waves (indicates arousal).

Field did one study where they had elderly people massaging babies versus receiving a massage.  They found the benefits were greater when the massages were given rather than received. She believes this is from the stimulation of the pressure receptors in the hands while massaging. Remember that next time your partner asks for a back rub.

Studies have shown that students are far more likely to speak up in class when the teachers pat them in a friendly way. Students like the library more and are likely to return when the librarian pats the hand of the student when they check out a book.

Being hugged by a loved one before a stressful situation like an exam or giving a speech is known to improve performance

Holding hands, hugging, cuddling, having a back rub are all great forms of touch when you have permission and it’s appropriate, but when are alone you can find similar benefits from self-care like giving yourself a manicure or pedicure.

Yoga and Pilates can be considered self-touch or self-massage, because you’re rubbing your limbs against the floor.  When you are walking you’re stimulating pressure sensors in your feet, so it and many other forms of exercise could also be considered self-massage.

My Valentine’s Day gift to you is to share that a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka “the love hormone”, so enjoy the extra hand holding, hugs and cuddles.

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