Is the pandemic leaving you a touch starved?
I have been talking with friends about how quickly we’ve become accustomed to not touching, and whether it will feel too intimate or uncomfortable when we are finally allowed to hug each other again.
There is some interesting research coming out about how important touch is for our wellbeing. The thought is that it is a very primal mechanism of soothing — based on it being one of the first ways we soothe; when we are pre-verbal).
Interestingly, the skin, and the receptors therein, constitutes the largest of our organs. It is also one of our earliest developing senses, thought to be present in the embryo by eight weeks’ gestation. By adulthood, the average male will have about 18,000 square centimeters of skin, constituting 17 per cent of his total body weight.
As adults, most of us have learnt that touch is very potent, particularly when it comes to a sense of connectivity. Research has shown that even the most subtle, brief and forgettable touch can create powerful connections and a sense of attachment.
Touch expert Tiffany Field found that even 15 minutes of touch can enhance growth and weight gain in children, but also lead to emotional, physical and cognitive improvements in adults. Touch appears to stimulate our bodies in very specific ways: it can lower blood pressure, heart rate, stimulate the hippocampus (linked to memory), and boost mood and immunity. Hence, the effects of touch are far-reaching.
You may have your own sense of how touch is good for you in terms of pleasure or comfort, but research indicates it can reduce cortisol (stress hormone), increase dopamine (pleasure hormone) and increase oxytocin (bonding and connectedness). It’s little wonder we might be struggling without it.
Luckily, there are some sensory touch hacks:
1, Imagine hugs/touch — yep, imagination is powerful and can trigger the same responses. Visualise and try to immerse yourself in the sensory memory
2, Stroke your pets — or even a neighbour’s pet if they don’t bite!. The action of petting evokes the same kind of chemistry
3, Try a weighted blanket as this can fake the sense of soothing touch
4, Book a massage — if restrictions allow. Our backs are particular hotspots, with the highest density of nerve receptors in the parts of the body we can’t reach ourselves (back and shoulders)
5, A hot-water bottle, body pillow or even furry blanket can be enough of a sensory boost to activate those nerve endings
6, Body brushing with a loofah or even rolling around on the floor can also activate pressure receptors
7, Self-touching also reduces cortisol levels. Ahem, aside from the obvious, stroking your arm, twirling your hair, rubbing your hands or temples all work!
You may be obviously craving touch, but if you are just feeling “a bit off”, it may be worth becoming your own mini-scientist and trialling what coping strategies help — lab coat optional!
• Gemma Harris, ClinPsyD, is Director of Corporate Wellness at Solstice, and writes on Instagram as @theexdoctor