My interest was piqued this week by a radio segment about the prevalence of touch deprivation and research about how it increases aggressive behaviour among adolescents.
Leading researcher, Tiffany Field, from The University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute was reiterating the unequivocal evidence that physical touch benefits our mental and physical wellbeing at all ages.
The ensuing discussion and phone-in raised tension between recognition of the need for touch, its benefits and the challenges of navigating what is and is not ‘appropriate’ touching – in the workplace, schools, medical settings… everywhere.
It got me thinking…
In our new ‘no-touch’ climate, how do we connect?
Co-workers are avoiding hugs. Parents are resisting the urge to comfort another’s hurt child. There are regulations for teachers about contact with students and doctors are being counselled to avoid hugs as a precaution against a legal backlash. But what’s the knock-on impact of all this on our sense of connection?
I’ve written before about the epidemic of social isolation and loneliness and the wellbeing and mortality risks of reported loneliness, social isolation and living alone.
This evidence highlights how vital it is to find ways to connect – with our family, our friends and with strangers. To ignore such connection is to risk ill health and early death, all for want of social engagement.
So, how does ‘touch’ sit within all this?
Lots of research (see below) has demonstrated the numerous physiological benefits of touch. These include:
- Decreasing your heart rate
- Lowering your blood pressure
- Dropping your cortisol levels (the stress hormone)
- Boosting oxytocin (the bonding hormone)
- Increasing your serotonin (the body’s natural antidepressant)
- Deciding how many natural killer cells (the body’s frontline defence system) to release in your body
Being the recipient of ‘welcome touch’ is clearly good for us. It seems sensible to assume physical touch can moderate the negative impacts of living alone and feeling lonely.
Yet, Francis McGlone, Professor in Neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University  and one of the leading researchers on touch, captured the problem when he said:
“We have demonised touch to a level at which it sparks off hysterical responses, it sparks off legislative processes, and this lack of touch is not good for mental health.”
Now, I’m not going to attempt to tackle the ‘rights and wrongs’ of touching each other in the range of environments in which we find ourselves. That’s far too complex for this brief article.
Rather, my suggestion is to consider how you can engage in more careful and consideredtouch with others.
Here’s some questions for you to reflect on:
- Who do I touch?
- How often do I touch?
- Am I touch deprived?
- Are there people in my life who may be touch deprived?
If you feel lonely or isolated, can you seek more careful and considered touch? This could be hugs with family or close friends, handshakes, shoulder patting colleagues or even getting a professional massage – all are contributors to your physical and mental wellbeing.
Remember, some people are more ‘touch oriented’ than others, so proceed with care. And, in the absence of people to touch, patting a pet can bring many of the same physiological benefits.
Believe it or not, you could also:
- Attend a Cuddle Workshop (London)
- Go for private (platonic) cuddle sessions (Oregon, USA), where you can choose from a menu of 72 cuddle positions and select your personal Certified Cuddler
- Attend a Cuddle Party (Australia)
- Purchase a Tranquillity Hugging Chair (Japan).
I’m not making this up! I don’t know whether to feel happy or sad these initiatives seem to be required, but if they achieve more touch and less loneliness then bring it on!
 Tiffany Field and Francis McGlone are also quoted in a recent article in The Guardian,here.
Field, T. (2016). Massage Therapy Research Review. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice (24), 19–31.
Field, T. (2010). Touch for socioemotional and physical well-being: A review. Developmental Review (30), 367–383.