The importance of touch

Don’t touch.

Don’t hug.

Don’t kiss.

Don’t get close to any other humans.

These are all along the lines of what government and health organizations have told us in the last two months. They may not have said these words exactly but the words they have used are close to this.

Yes, we all must be careful in the middle of the spread of a virus we don’t know much about but dangerous messages are being sent to our children right now and one of the most dangerous is that we can no longer physically touch each other. In circumstances where we don’t know enough about a virus it is important to be careful who we touch or be close to, of course, but when children are told “Don’t hug Grandpa and Grandma!” that has to do something to the children psychologically and that something can’t be good.

According to Healthline, “Failing to experience frequent positive touch as a child may affect the development of the vagus nerve and oxytocin system damaging intimacy and social skills.”

Don’t misunderstand my meaning here. I’m not talking about inappropriate touching in a sexual manner. I’m talking about the simple touch of a hand to a shoulder, holding hands, a hand on top of a head, an arm around another person. There is no denying we, as humans, created by a loving God, were wired to be touched.

I’m sure most reading this would agree that is true and if you want further proof, simply go to Google and type in “the human need for touch.” Thousands of articles will pop up and let you know how true it is that humans need to be touched.

One of those articles was on Healthline (I’m not sponsored by them, it was simply the one that caught my attention) and it concerns the term “touch starvation.”

According to Healthline, “Scientists have found that a nerve ending, called C-tactile afferents, exists to recognize any form of gentle touch.” In other words, it isn’t only “sensual touch” that benefits us and if we don’t get that touch we do start to suffer from touch starvation.

Touch starvation symptoms include so much of what so many of us experience and are already experiencing on any given day, let alone during a pandemic:

  • depression;
  • anxiety
  • stress
  • difficulty sleeping
  • low relationship satisfaction
  • a tendency to avoid secure attachments

According to Healthline, “You may also subconsciously do things to simulate touch, such as taking long, hot baths or showers, wrapping up in blankets, and even holding on to a pet.”

There is even a suggested speed for the touching (between 3 and 5 centimeters per second to be exact) to help facilitate the release of oxytocin within the body, which is a pleasure producing hormone secreted from the pituitary gland.

According to Live Science (livescience.com), “oxytocin is a hormone secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure at the base of the brain. It’s sometimes known as the “cuddle hormone” or the “love hormone,” because it is released when people snuggle up or bond socially. Even playing with your dog can cause an oxytocin surge, according to a 2009 study published in the journal Hormones and Behavior.”

(Read more about oxytocin HERE.)

This hormone is very complex, since it can also increase the retention of bad memories or unpleasant feelings, but the bottom line is one of it’s main functions is creating positive feelings of attachment in people. In women, the hormone is released during childbirth and especially during nursing.

So without human touch, our body is deprived of oxytocin. Not a great thing for us overall. Without human touch and without good levels of oxytocin we can produce too much cortisol. Many of you have probably heard a lot about cortisol in recent years. It is a stress hormone created by your adrenal glands. It is supposed to rise in the morning to help wake you up and fall at night to help you rest, but in our constantly-on-the-move society, cortisol is often too high or high and low a the wrong times.

Stress puts a strain on our adrenals and when that happens the adrenals kick out the cortisol at the wrong times. (read more about cortisol and how to lower it naturally and safely HERE).

When another person touches you (again, does not need to be sexual) it can help produce a calming effect in us (unless the person does what my dad jokingly used do to my mom and pat her quickly on the back while asking “Why are you so stressed?!!” Ha!). The article on Healthline says that touch helps us relax by “stimulating pressure receptors that transport signals to the vagus nerve.” The vagus nerve connects the brain to the rest of the body and “uses the signals to slow the pace of the nervous system.”

Other benefits of touch:

  • helps to reduce the feelings of social exclusion and loneliness;
  • helps build healthy relationships

So, what do we do about this right now in a time when we are being told touching someone can give them a virus that could be deadly to them (though more than 80 percent of cases of the virus are thankfully not fatal)? While articles suggest that under normal circumstances a person get a massage or start dancing or even get a manicure to help facilitate touch in a healthy way, that can be a challenge when we are under stay-at-home orders and many businesses like this are closed. And no one is suggesting you fill your “touch meter” by running around randomly touching people. That sounds like something that might happen right before the police say “You have the right to remain silent.”

But even in a pandemic we can find ways to fill our Touch Quota. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable with your children kissing their grandparents right now or even spending a lot of time with them in person, but what about letting them see them with a facemask on, gloves or even an apron and letting them hug each other. I can image the rush of endorphins that will result for both the child and the grandparents. And if you are in the home with your immediate family, don’t withhold physical affection. You’re already exposing each other, unknowingly, to germs, simply by being in the same house.

One of the saddest things I read during all of this was from women in a perimenopause group I was in (and later left) who said they refused to hug their husbands who worked outside the home. I know, we are all frightened to get this potentially deadly virus. We don’t want to pass it on to anyone else, especially because studies are showing people could be asymptomatic and pass it on without even knowing they were sick (newsflash: this can happen with many viruses, not just this one), but at what cost? Are we willing to possibly emotionally damage our children by not finding some way they can connect with their loved ones while not spending every moment with them or kissing them or otherwise exchanging germs.

Listen, if you are reading this and you have a loved one who is in healthcare, dealing directly with patients who are ill, and they are not seeing their children, or you or someone they love, please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying you are doing something wrong. Not at all. Each person has to approach this situation in their own way and in the best way that suits their family. There is no one-size fits all. My concern is simply that by saying around our children that we can’t touch this or that person, we are causing a misunderstanding that appropriate touch is not welcome or needed.

My thought is that if there are family members who have already exposed each other to whatever they have exposed each other to, then by all means – hug them, kiss them even. I know in my household, I considered not hugging or kissing my husband because he was the one going to the stores and traveling to work (although he’s locked in his office most of the time once there), but in reality, I couldn’t do that. My husband thrives on touch and feels loved when he is touched, even if it is just a hug or a quick kiss. And maybe I didn’t think I needed touch in my life as much as he does because of our different upbringings (my family hugged a lot, his did not and still doesn’t), but I do.

If you don’t feel comfortable filling your touch tank by touching another person (or simply can’t right now for health concerns) another way to get that “touch benefit” in your life – a way all of us probably would welcome and can do without worrying we will give someone a virus – is petting an animal. So go ahead, hug your dog or cat (I know, most cats don’t want to be hugged so do that at your own discretion as well), pet your lizard, kiss your bird. Find some way to get those rush of endorphins, lower that cortisol and produce a healthy amount of oxytocin even during a pandemic. Your mind and soul, and even your body, will thank you one day.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about the human need for touch and how you have been finding ways to fill that need during this time. (Please keep comments at least pg-13 rated *wink*).

Written by Lisa R. Howeler

As a writer, photographer and former journalist, Lisa R. Howeler writes a little bit about everything on her blog Boondock Ramblings. She self-published her first novel, A Story to Tell, in September 2019 on Amazon. She's a wife and a mother and enjoys a good John Wayne movie and a cozy Jan Karon book. She's also a freelance writer and photographer who is a contributor to various stock agencies, including Lightstock and Alamy. Her photography work focuses on documentary and photojournalism.

9 comments

  1. Thanks for all of this great information. I’ve often thought about the results after things are loosened up, and how we will begin to interract with each other again. Will we be more shy with new-comers? Will we revert back to more of the stiff ways that were in place before the 70s brought about more free hugging? I’m not sure, but I hope that we will gain new ways to care for each other, and be so thankful for the touch that can be restored again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Honestly, I had you on my mind when I wrote this because all I could think is “What if she or someone in her position thinks this is a lecture, or saying people are doing something wrong?” I just hope I made it clear that we all have our different situations and that I’m talking long term effects not short term because these breaks from each other are needed in the short term for our safety from this virus. I hope that is making sense and I really hope you are all okay and your daughter is okay. She has really been on my mind and in my prayers.

      Like

      1. Oh no, I did not (or would not) take it that way at all! Since our granddaughter has been with us the last month and there are only 3 of us here at our house, we lavish our little one with lots of hugs and cuddles. She needs that reinforcement of love since she can’t be with her mommy right now. Our daughter is still symptomatic, not better, but not worse so far. And we’re so grateful for that and all the prayers said on her behalf. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I studied epidemiology when I was earning my Bachelor’s degree in Health Education & Community Health, and I can state with confidence that the CDC powers-that-be have entirely mismanaged the whole virus situation. That’s all I’ll say about it here; see my complete explanation of the subject in my post “COVID” Common Sense, at my blog butterflybefree(dot)wordpress(dot)com (URL spelled out in case the settings at this site reject comments with links).

    Healthcare providers used to think that it was touch that made premature babies upset and die of brain bleeds when their blood pressure went up. That’s why their parents were prohibited from holding them. Preemies were isolated, motionless, in noisy NICU rooms, where they failed to thrive, and died. Well, given that they were at high risk for brain bleeds, anyway (because their brains had not finished growing), it turned out that it wasn’t ALL touch that did that to the babies, it was because the ONLY touch they experienced in the NICU was painful touching (from being injected, venipuncture, intubation, airway suctioning, etc.). Once the providers loosened up and let parents hold their preemies and give them loving touch (especially skin-to-skin “kangaroo care”), the babies began to thrive, and the death rate went down. What the preemies needed was an environment that simulated the hug of the womb, the movement, breath sounds and bowel sounds of the mother’s body, and the sound of the mother’s voice, to help them complete their development with as little damage from their prematurity as possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is so informative and I think it should be sent to someone within the government system. They’re making emotional decisions because they’re terrified and not realizing the consequences they’re leaving behind. So sad. I really enjoyed reading all the information about touch. It’s very interesting!

    Like

  4. Touch is such an important thing to my husband and me. It really does make us happier! Sometimes I fear we’re smothering our kids because they’re constantly yelling at us to get off of them, but we have to make up for all the hugs and kisses they’re missing out on from their grandparents. My mom has basically no immune system, so we’re afraid of even driving by and waving from the other side of the window. My husband is also an essential worker, but I put him through a rigorous routine where his shoes go in a box before he can even step inside, his clothes go straight into the washing machine, his mask goes straight into a box from his hands, and then he takes a full shower. I cringe at the thought of our water bill, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. And I’d like to be able to still touch him and let him play with the kids. Can I just say I’m so ready for this to be over?

    Liked by 1 person

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