Communication transmitted through touch is one of the most powerful ways to establish a secure and close human relationship. Touch is the first sense to develop in the womb, and the first sense to create a human bond. The pregnant mother lovingly touches her stomach, and the unborn baby connects by touching the uterus wall. This is called the dawn of attachment.
Humans need touch to thrive. Even before COVID-19, there were those in our society who were not exposed to enough of this kind of caring and safe contact. According to one study, the United States is among the most touch-averse countries in the world. Researchers observed hour-long conversations among friends. French friends reached out and touched one another 110 times, Puerto Ricans touched 180 times, friends in the U.S. only touched twice and in England, they did not touch at all. Now, with this pandemic, people are avoiding even the forms of touch that are social norms in this country like hugging, holding and shaking hands.
When people lack caring touch, they are said to suffer from “skin hunger.” Studies show that these individuals are more likely to suffer from loneliness, depression and anxiety as well as a number of medical conditions. The simple act of touching someone you care about can alleviate stress, reduce your heart rate and blood pressure and strengthen your immune system. Premature babies who received three 15-minute massages a day for 10 days, gained more weight, were more alert, active and responsive, and left the hospital sooner, than babies who were not nurtured with touch.
Another study found that touch with a trusted spouse – in the form of hand-holding – relieves anxiety associated with an anticipated threat. Researchers used MRIs to scan the brains of women in stressful situations. When the women held their partner’s hand they felt significantly less stress and anxiety. This was measured by negligible activation of the hypothalamus, the brain region that is activated under stress. Another study of elderly patients in facilities, found those who received soothing touch via two massages a week experienced less depression, insomnia and pain, than those who were not touched.
For infants and young children loving touch is essential to their ability to form attachments and bond, as well as for their health. Babies who are neglected and deprived of loving touch can develop “failure to thrive,” a life-threatening condition. Children who experience abusive touch develop severe behavioral and psychological problems, as well as an aversion to the very touch and closeness they so desperately need.
Healing through Touch
Touch is healing. In family therapy, we often encourage safe and loving touch and hugs to heal trauma and build secure attachments. Feeling safe in the arms of someone you can trust and rely on can have an immense impact on well-being.
As we continue to be challenged by the COVID-19 health crisis in numerous ways, it is important to understand that for many people, especially those who are isolated and alone, the loss of touch from family and friends is likely contributing to their emotional pain. As circumstances allow, when it is safe to do so, begin the healing from this difficult time by showing your caring and love with affection, touch and hugs.
Dana, D. (2019). Touch Taboo. Psychotherapy Networker, 4/5.
Field, T. (2010). Touch for socioemotional and physical well-being. Developmental Review, 30, 367-383.