I was inspired to write a post on the importance of human touch after coming home from the grocery store one day. After washing and sanitizing all of my food, bags, tossing my gloves into the laundry and wiping down my phone, I was feeling a bit empty. You see, as I write this, we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. At this stage the U.S. hasn’t hit its peak yet, and the majority of our states are under a shelter-in-place order. We’re wearing cloth face masks and staying 6-feet away from anyone who doesn’t live in our household.
It’s such a strange and scary time, and for a lot of people it’s the loss of human touch.
In my pre-COVID life I work as an Esthetician where I am constantly touching people. I hug my clients as they walk in and out of the studio. I massage their face, neck and shoulders and give them a friendly squeeze if they’re having a tough day. Now I find myself wearing a face mask and walking off of the sidewalk to steer clear of oncoming people who are either not respecting the 6-foot rule or as a polite gesture. If someone other than my husband were to touch me right now or come within a foot of me, I would immediately think I was being infected. This is anything but normal.
The importance of human touch is tremendous for a variety of reasons. The friendly touch of another person invokes positive thoughts and trust. Touch is what binds us together. Our skin contains receptors that directly trigger emotional responses. Researchers at UC Berkeley found that physical touch activates a region of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex. This area of the brain is linked to feelings of reward and compassion.
How Touch Reduces Stress
Touch reduces cardiovascular stress by activating the vagus nerve. This can help with handling difficult situations or cherishing moments of happiness. A simple hug can have a cascade of positive effects. Soothing touch stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin. In addition to promoting social bonding and positive emotions, oxytocin reduces the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol. ACTH triggers the release of cortisol which is a stress hormone that weakens the immune response. Reducing cortisol will increase the number of lymphocytes (white blood cells) available to fight off infections.
Endorphins (brain chemicals) that are released through touch can mediate anxiety and reduce pain. By activating μ-opioid receptors, endorphins from touch can generate feelings of comfort and reward. Furthermore, one specific type of touch, massage therapy, was found to increase levels of serotonin and dopamine (pleasure inducing chemicals).
Living Alone During COVID-19
If you don’t have someone at home, you can simulate the sensation of human touch by using a weighted blanket. “Like a squeeze machine, a weighted blanket mimics deep pressure touch therapy, which may help calm and soothe…” (SensaCalm). The blanket can increase oxytocin (feel-good hormone) and provide a sense of relaxation.
All together, the positive benefits of touch can make us more resilient to stress and strengthen our immune response.
As a result of the infamous “cabin fever”, you may become annoyed by the people or person living in your household. It may be a spouse, roommate or a family member who is getting on your last nerve. Take my word for it, you are lucky to have that person nearby due to the importance of human touch! After reading this, maybe you can discuss giving each other a hug each day for the sake of each other’s health and well-being. If you are living with someone whom you love touching, try to spend more time doing so each day.
It’s been said that it will take awhile for a great number of people to feel comfortable touching another person after this pandemic. Once the pandemic is over, I will make some adjustments in my daily life, but I look forward to hugging every single one of my clients and holding them just a smidge longer than I used to.