They say a 20 second hug allows our bodies to release the neurotransmitter oxytocin - the bonding hormone that makes us feel comforted and connected. Even just a few of these physical connections can directly lower our heart rate, decrease our blood pressure, and drop our levels of cortisol (that fight-or-flight hormone that unfortunately also makes us gain unwanted and unhealthy weight around our midsection). We all know that touch is a crucial element of our physical and social wellbeing, but are any of us actually getting enough of it?
For some of us - yes! As young moms, many of us get over-touched. Sticky hands and dirty fingers paw at our bellies and beg for our arms. Some days, we yearn for LESS touch! Professional dancers and ice skaters are touched every minute for work, and teachers wash their hands 40 times a day in cold season to combat all the little runny noses that get wiped across their hands. Some of us get touched often by intimate partners, and some of us get cuddles and snuggles daily from our best animal friends.
But for many of us, touch is fleeting. We may get some, but most of us do not get enough of the touch that actually makes us feel better. And in our hyper-independent and overly-virtual world that continues to move farther and farther away from simple touches (and where many unwanted touches have become so destructive), our wellbeing is directly impacted from our lessened physical connectedness.
Lack of touch harms our brains. We see this daily in our prison system, as those kept in solitary confinement often fall deeply into (or further into) mental illness. And we also see this in children unfortunately raised in no-touch environments, like some overcrowded and understaffed orphanages, where years of abuse and neglect and lack of physical stimulation actually causes the part of their brain that regulates emotion to shrink. Touch thus proves vital to our early brain development, and to our ongoing brain health.
But touch also impacts us at the very deepest gene level. Scientists studying rats have found that those babies who were licked less by their moms had their stress-response gene 'turned-off'. Thus, this lack of touch physically made them less able to handle the stress of their lives from the inside out. Amazingly, when the touch was brought back though, the gene also 'turned back on' (isn't the body an INCREDIBLE thing??). Lesson learned: the more positive touches we can get, the mentally healthier we can be from the inside out.
When we are lonely, sometimes it proves especially challenging to get enough good touches in our daily lives. So what can we do about that? Here are some ways to get touches without relying on a loved one to provide 'em:
Daybreaker. Cuddle Parties. Theater improv classes. While not always super easy to find, there are so many options out there to engage in meaningful, consensual touches even when friends or loved ones are not able to provide them. By having courage and reaching out, we can all find ways to boost our oxytocin and feel more deeply connected and alive (and at the same time, maybe make some wonderful new friends!)
At only 8 weeks, they say touch is the very first sense to develop in utero. And while many people will argue that hearing is the last sense we lose before we die, others believe it to be touch truly as the very last sensation we experience. Either way, touch is crucial to our human experience, and crucial to our capacity to quiet our loneliness.