The Proven Healing Power of Touch

36591099 - old and young holding hands on light background, closeup

I was making breakfast in my kitchen this morning when I heard the stirrings of my three-year-old son waking up. My husband walked into his bedroom and gathered him up into his arms for a good morning cuddle. As my son slowly made the transition from the Land of Nod and into the day ahead, the two of them sat together for at least 10 minutes, still in their embrace, watching me as I pottered around in the kitchen.

 

It wasn’t an unusual occurrence in our home, but it was a heartwarming moment between father and son, and I couldn’t help but soak in some of the warmth and love myself. It got me thinking about the research I’ve been doing lately into the power of interpersonal touch and how moments like these can have a profound effect on our biochemistry in a way that can be beneficial for our health.

 

In recent years researchers have been increasingly documenting the positive physiological and biochemical effects of touch, including decreases in blood pressure and heart rate, decreases in the stress hormone cortisol, increases in the love hormone oxytocin, stimulation of reward regions in the brain, and reduced activation in stress-related regions.⁠

 

One study on rabbits that were fed high cholesterol diets found that if they were petted, held, talked to, and played with on a regular basis, they had 60 percent less blockage in their arteries than the rabbits that were left in isolation. In other words, positive physical contact was correlated with the animals being better able to eliminate excess cholesterol. In human studies, researchers have found that a 20-second hug along with 10 minutes of hand holding reduced the harmful physical effects of stress, including its effect on blood pressure and heart rate. Another recent study found that hugging can reduce our susceptibility to catching a cold during times of stress.

 

It’s interesting that moderate-pressure massage is being shown to be one of the most effective forms of touch. It has been used primarily to treat pain, although it is increasingly used for other problems including job stress, depression, autoimmune conditions like asthma, dermatitis and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as fibromyalgia, diabetes, and cancer.

 

Much of this research confirms what many of us already know to be true. Whether it’s an enthusiastic handshake, an encouraging pat on the back, a welcoming embrace, a sensual caress, a nudge for attention, or a tender kiss, physical contact can at times convey meaning more powerfully than language. Even the briefest of touches from another person can elicit a strong emotional response. There is nothing like the comforting experience of being touched by our loved ones.

 

Yet despite its importance for communication, health, and relationships, human touch is becoming increasingly taboo in many cultures. We’re actively encouraged to keep our hands to ourselves in fear of being accused of invading personal space, of being misinterpreted, of being sued, or of being accused of child abuse. One of the world’s leading touch researchers, Tiffany Field, the head of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, who has spent 30 years studying the effects of interpersonal touch, believes that many of us are dangerously touch-deprived and are suffering from “touch hunger.” This may explain why “professional cuddler” Samantha Hess, who opened up a cuddle shop in Portland Oregan to provide non-sexual touch to those who otherwise might go without, was reported to have 10,000 customer enquiries in the first week she opened. It may also explain the social media phenomena of the Free Hugs Campaign – a video of a guy giving out free hugs that went viral and has now been seen by more than 77 million people.

 

 

Previously I’ve written about the compelling body of evidence demonstrating the link between feeling socially connected and good health, and the link between feeling socially isolated and having bad health. Considering that being part of a warm, loving community makes us far more likely to have regular physical contact with others, and that being socially isolated would likely mean the opposite, researchers may well be on the path to uncovering one of the underlying mechanisms to explain the links.

 

With my own history of having a chronic illness, and having delved into all this research on touch, I confess to being on the look out for more opportunities to get touchy feely. Having a very cuddly toddler in my home is definitely a bonus. If you’re after some appropriate and safe ways to boost your own daily physical contact, here are some of the ideas I’ve come up with:

  • Cuddle on the couch with your loved ones when you’re watching TV.
  • Pet an animal – dog, cat, horse, llama…whatever.
  • Hold hands when you’re walking with your kids and other loved ones.
  • Give your family members a good morning hug when you wake up, when you see them off for the day and/or when you reunite after the day is done. If you don’t live in the same house, you could always send them a virtual hug via a text message or email to let them know you’re thinking of them.
  • High five your colleagues when something good happens at work. In fact, handshakes, fist bumps, and even back pats can all be part of a healthy workplace.
  • Book yourself in for a massage with a registered therapist.
  • zabelisa

    Some people like to hug a little too much… they assume everyone need a hug but it is them who need it. There is a certain level of appropriateness that many cannot decipher sadly.

  • janet

    And maybe you are a little afraid of that closeness, that connection? You may be holding yourself back from easy, warm affection.

  • zabelisa

    I don't think so.. I just don't like to be too close to people who have unsettled energy. They creep me out. I know where to get mine and I get plenty… so I am not in need of touching like the majority. I have children who love me and a boyfriend who is more then happy to show me affection. If you are in need, then I can see your point.

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    This is such an interesting discussion.
    Everyone has their own comfort zone and it's important to pause to read people before leaping in and being affectionate. There is a time and a place. On the flip side, I think Tiffany Field's point is that there are people who are craving more physical contact. Perhaps many people don't know where to start without coming across as a weirdo.

  • janec71

    To touch on a point raised in the article (no pun intended), I'm very interested in anti-isolation. This is a huge issue in my life. I remember reading the post about this and it did have links at the end which I looked into without finding anything really useful about overcoming isolation/making friends.

    Do you have any information available? Or possibly suggest something pragmatically useful?

  • zabelisa

    The best way if you can afford it is a professional massage. No weirdness there!

  • Melissa Enter

    Interesting article. For the past 9 months I have been traveling abroad learning about the Massage In Schools Program. It is a nonprofit program that has been highly successful in 35 countries (recently has been instroduced to the U.S) to reduce stress and bullying in preschool and elementary school environments as well as youth groups and families. It consist of a simple 7 min massage, fully clothed on hands, head and back, child to child. The children learn boundaries by asking permission before ever touching anyone else, the right to say no and have that respected (consent) and it does an amazing job of calming children and getting them ready to learn while creating social connectedness within the group. I had the privilege observe classes in London and Liverpool and Prague as well as teach one in Minnesota. The benefits for the children and class are absolutely amazing and bring tears to the observers eyes. I never understood the importance of touch until this last year when I started researching this program. massageinschools.com or misa-usa.com

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    Wow. Thanks for sharing this. What an amazing program. I can only imagine what it has taken to get something like this off the ground.

  • Melissa Enter

    It is amazing. The program was founded by Mia Elmater from Sweden and Sylvie Hetu from Montreal in 2000. Both are Infant Massage Instructors/Trainers and saw the need for something for older children. They have spent many hours in developing the program but once people see the effect the program has on children, it grows on its own. One early childhood program I visited in Liverpool, the area schools all recognized the difference in the children coming out of this center that they have all started to implement the program too. I just completed my training to be able to bring the program to the U.S. It feels so good to be a part of something positive right now!

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    We're in the early stages of researching our new film, which is about mind body parenting, so I've just added this to our list of things to follow up. The project's current name is Future Proof and it's all about what parents/teachers etc can do for kids in the age of chronic disease. Thanks for sharing this info Melissa. Much appreciated.

  • Melissa Enter

    That sounds like a wonderful film. If I can help in any way, let me know. My contact email is [email protected]

  • Christine Jones

    I was at the station waiting for my train the other day and the person next to started a conversation just beautiful morning. I replied and we said a few other things. I got on my train thinking this should happen more often so perhaps you could start with small conversations at check out or other opportunities. I think smiling at people as you pass them is lovely too. Also joining in groups there are lots to choose from. Good luck.

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    Hi Jane,
    I have just noticed your note here, somehow my notification settings didn't pick it up. This is such a good question. For me, the trick was about changing my mindset to put myself in situations where friendships would have the potential to flourish. I joined groups (mother's group was a big one for me after I'd just had a baby), but I know people who have joined card groups, photography groups, singing groups and book clubs and have found friendships there. It's about doing something you enjoy with other people who also enjoy it. Not every interaction with every person automatically leads to
    connection, but for me, it was about putting myself in situations where
    it could happen. I also made a decision to move back closer to family and friends despite the fact that it would change the course of my career (not the same city, but rather the same suburb and area.) These days I often go up to my local shops and bump into someone I know. I have a real sense of community around me and I'm so grateful for it. Hope that helps. I wish you well in your own travels. Shannon

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    Hi Christine, reading this story about your train journey this morning made my Monday morning. Thanks for taking the time to share it.

  • James Williams

    I'd like to complement Shannon for this article. This is what I call proper journalism where we can all learn something. I have unfortunately encountered too many political journalists who just want to lecture others with what they think we ought to believe rather than just tell us what is happening..

About the author: Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a journalist and producer who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 24 years old. Although doctors meant well, none could offer her a cause or a cure. Since then Shannon has been researching the latest scientific research linking her mind and body to health outcomes. Nearly 10 years have passed since her diagnosis and today Shannon is well and not taking medication. Shannon has worked as a television, radio and online journalist and producer and has a Master’s degree in Communications. She worked for the ABC and Fairfax before starting her own production company, Elemental Media. Shannon is the director of the feature film The Connection.

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