The Healing Power of Touch

Stuck at home in bed recently with the flu that has been going around New England, I spent some time with Old England binge-watching The Crown and thinking about the healing power of touch. Sure, I dozed off a few times, dreaming of corgis and horseback riding, but I mostly stayed awake and paid attention. My biggest takeaway from my fevery binge was that nobody touches The Queen. Nobody.

Obviously His Royal Highness ‘touched’ Her Majesty a few times, but I’m talking about the hugs and high-fives and fist bumps you get from friends that make things like the agony of 6:00am CrossFit or getting your car unstuck from a snowbank actually enjoyable. Human touch makes us, well, human.

We hold and caress little babies. We hug friends and cuddle loved ones and even our dogs because it’s an automatic response that feels good. This week we take a look at why human touch feels so good.

Let’s start at the beginning with babies. Touch is the very first sense we as humans develop. In infancy, touch is essential to brain development. We know it instinctively, but science backs us up on these heart felt tendencies. Scientific America tells us that “Particularly in the newborn period, it helps calm babies: they cry less and it helps them sleep better. There are some studies that show their brain development is facilitated—probably because they are calmer and sleep better.” This touch has the added benefit of reducing maternal stress by releasing oxytocin, the ‘bonding hormone’ secreted by the the pituitary gland, a tiny structure at the base of the brain. When Mom is less stressed, baby develops in better health. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/infant-touch/)

Oxytocin is also called the love hormone because it is released when people are physically affectionate toward one another socially. A pat on the back, a hug, a handshake all release oxytocin in the brain. Babies especially need these physical reinforcements of their place on the human team so that their brains develop in strong healthy ways.

“Touch underpins our social world and, evidence suggests, it may even help to reduce anxiety and provide pain relief…Research is now revealing that experiences with touch – especially in infancy – do indeed shape brain development.” When baby cries, pick her up, hug and kiss her. It will help her brain develop. (https://theconversation.com/touch-in-infancy-is-important-for-healthy-brain-development-74864)

But let us get back to Her Majesty. Psychology Today tells us that we send and receive some emotional signals—anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness—solely through touch. Touch is our most fundamental mode of interaction. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201303/the-power-touch)
Touch increases levels of dopamine and serotonin in the body (both help regulate mood and counter anxiety); touch also boosts immunity and lowers blood pressure. Touch is also one of the best predictors of happiness, health, and longevity.

According to articles in the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, such benefits are conferred even when you pet your dog or cat. No wonder Her Majesty had all those corgis!

So pick up your baby when she cries; hug your friends, fist pump, high five, even elbow them in jest. It’s good for your baby and your friends, it’s good for you! If Her Majesty was here and I wasn’t just getting over the flu, I’d give her a hug. She probably needs it.

Photo by Ashton Mullins on Unsplash