While social distancing in public is important to stop the spread of COVID-19 our need for physical touch to stay healthy should not be deferred.
From birth through to our senior years, touch plays a key role in our development and physical and mental well-being. New studies on touch continue to show the importance of physical contact in early development, communication, personal relationships, and fighting disease.
The therapeutic benefits of touch have become increasingly clear since study in this field started to grow in the 1990’s. Dr Tiffany Field from the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine identifies that with no-touch policies in schools and the isolating effects of cell phones and computers, we are touching each other less. What impact is this decline in touch likely to have on our health and well-being is what these researchers are trying to establish.
In looking at the benefits of touch, Dr Field said, “we found that massage actually increases natural killer cells. Natural killer cells are the front lines of the immune system. They kill viral cells, bacteria cells. We found it first in men who had HIV, and then we studied adolescents who had HIV and found the same results. Then we studied breast cancer and again found an increase in natural killer cells. We think that the reason that happens is because we’re knocking down cortisol levels, the body’s culprit stress hormone. Cortisol kills natural killer cells, and so if we can reduce the stress hormones, we can save natural killer cells.”
So when asked what the remedy is for our modern world where our children are having far less physical connection, Dr Fields shared, "I think parents need to be touching their kids as much as they can because kids aren’t getting it at school. And when they’re with their peers, they’re also on their phones. I think certainly kids today are much more touch-deprived than they were before smartphones. So I think parents have to make a special effort to provide as much touch as they can.”
The best forms of touch according to Dr Fields is holding hands, hugging, and cuddling. When you apply more pressure, moderate pressure, as in a hug or giving a person a back rub, the effects are more positive than providing less pressure. Light stroking is a bit aversive to most people because they feel like they’re being tickled. Heart rate and blood pressure drop with moderate pressure and increase with light pressure. When we looked at brain waves, we get an increase in theta waves, which is what typically accompanies relaxation when we do moderate pressure. When we do light pressure, we get an increase in beta waves, which is what we usually see when someone is aroused.
We all need regular physical touch for both mental and physical well-being. For those that are single and live alone having a massage can be a good way to benefit from touch. Parents are encouraged to make time to increase touch with their children especially given the COVID-19 distancing measures at school and at sporting events. Couples can often become less physical as their relationship matures and busy lives leave less opportunities to connect physically. Realizing the importance and benefits of touch for our health and the protective properties it gives us against disease may help motivate us all to make better physical connections with those close to us.
This story was originally published by A Beautiful Perspective.