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“My skin didn't start to change until I changed the energy around me.” - Alicia Keys
Human touch — whether it’s from a warm embrace, a kiss, or simply a pat on the back — has extraordinary benefits to our overall well-being. In fact, some experts even say it has healing capabilities. Therefore, understanding its effects on our minds and bodies, as well as how to supplement it in times of absence, can be a key to our general health and happiness.
“There’s an overwhelming amount of research on the power of human touch to comfort, ease pain, and heal,” says Dr. Daryl Appleton, a psychiatrist based in New York City. “The benefits start the second we’re born. For example, newborns born pre-term who had touch therapy implemented into their care gained more weight than those who only had standard medical care. And in animals, we’ve found that mothers who groom and lick their babies more when they’re infants grow up to be calmer, more resilient to stress, and have stronger immune systems.”
That’s not all. Human touch can have immediate effects on our mental health, too, says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and professor in New York City. “Touch increases levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which can help regulate emotions, moods, and behaviors,” she explains. “Additionally, being touched by someone you have a deeper connection with, such as a friend or family member, induces the release of oxytocin — aka the bonding hormone — which is why cuddling with a partner can be so comforting.”
According to Hafeez, these three effects alone can help heighten our physical and mental health on multiple fronts. She says: “When touch occurs and these chemicals are released, they can help reduce anxieties, improve stress levels, enhance immune functions, soothe tension, and minimize the amount of cortisol released into the bloodstream. Consequently, this can lead to a better state of mind, deeper sleep, improved alertness, and even reduced body tension.”
The current reality for many, however, has reduced the number of opportunities for human touch. For instance, those quarantining solo have been without physical human contact — or at least at the levels they’re accustomed to — for quite some time now. That, coupled with the approach of seasonal-affective-disorder season, could have an impact on our mental and physical health, says Appleton. But not to worry. The good news is that there are several alternatives to human touch that, while not a perfect substitute, can help to mitigate feelings of isolation and thereby improve our well-being.
“Therapeutic massage, which has been found to make significant improvements in those lacking touch, is a great option,” says Appleton, who recommends finding a local practitioner or calling your insurance company to see if there are options covered by your healthcare plan. “There’s also research that suggests having your hands in the dirt, whether it be by planting, weeding, or doing crafts that involve organic materials, can give slight boosts to our system and make us feel more connected to the world around us.”
In addition, bonding with animals is an excellent option that can be hugely helpful for some. “Many have reported the benefits of having a pet during this pandemic given that creating a bond with an animal can have similar effects as bonding with a loved one,” says Hafeez. “In fact, petting and holding your own dog can mimic the bodily response of a mother holding a child. The body understands it is touching a living thing that is dear to you.”
If you can’t have pets in the home, Appleton advises finding a way to visit therapy animals, as this can have a similar effect.
All this to say: If you’ve been struggling with the absence of human touch during these highly unprecedented times, know that you’re far from alone and it will get better. In the meantime, take care of yourself by communicating frequently with loved ones. And of course, consider the aforementioned alternatives, such as pet adoption and massage therapy.
Here’s to never taking hugs and kisses for granted ever again.