The science of touch and its impact on our health.
For most people I’ve talked to, what they missed most during the mass quarantine of 2020 was being able to hug loved ones. Sometimes it takes losing something as basic yet fundamental as hugging to realize how often we do it and how important it is. There’s no doubt that there is a genuine connection between loving touch and our health — most especially our mental health.
Now that the world is tentatively opening up again, most countries shift focus from total and perpetual lockdown to answering how to navigate openness in new ways. With more extensive safety precautions and the combination of vaccines and boosters, many people have been eager to reach out and connect with others in person again. And as we reunite, the inevitable hugs that accompany those reunions will not only be therapeutic for the spirit but come with many other health benefits as well.
Simply giving a hug, holding hands, or putting an arm across the shoulder can be so powerful, and that’s connected to our sense of touch. It is one of our primary senses for investigating the environment we live in, communicating with others, and forming deep social bonds.
Touch is the first sense to come online in human development, at around 14 weeks while still in the womb. Our mother’s touch carries many health benefits from our birth through life, like lowering heart rate and promoting brain cell connections.
Two separate parts comprise our sense of touch. The first is the “fast-touch” part responsible for quick detection and analysis of contact. Whether something barely brushes you or someone whacks you with a stick, it’s your fast-touch system that is sensing and alerting you to the occasion. It’s the second part of our sense of touch, the so-called “slow touch” system, that then works to identify and report the emotional analysis of the contact.
Whenever we receive gentle, skin-temperature touch like you might detect from a hug, these nerves spring into action, sending messages up our spinal cord to the brain. These messages trigger a chain of hormone releases that support our health. One such hormone is Oxytocin, which plays a vital role in bonding with others, slowing heart rate, and reducing stress and anxiety. Your brain then releases endorphins which explain the immediate feeling of pleasure and well-being associated with these kinds of gentle, loving touches. Some research has shown that even hugging yourself can help to regulate emotional processes and reduce stress.
Hugs are so powerful, in fact, that they come with a few key health benefits:
Gentle touch and the release of Oxytocin can lower levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is often framed as the foil of Oxytocin, as it increases the more we are stressed. However, Cortisol also plays a role in regulating our sleep, making it little wonder that it’s so hard to sleep when stressed. Applying a gentle caress, cuddle, or a hug can increase your Oxytocin and decrease your Cortisol, sending you merrily on your way to sleep.
Tender physical touch during the earliest periods of development can create higher levels of oxytocin receptors and lower cortisol levels in the brain regions vital for regulating emotions. Infants that receive more of this loving physical touch grow up with greater resilience, less reactive to stressors, and with less anxiety.
The health of our social bonds will ultimately decide our fate, and few things help create and maintain healthy bonds so much as a caring touch. Since hugs release endorphins, we learn to see them as rewarding. When this touch is mutual and bi-directional, so are the benefits. These benefits can even extend to pets, seeing oxytocin levels rise in both pet and owner while petting them and promoting well-being for both.
Oxytocin and cortisol regulation, among other hormones, can also affect the body’s immune response. While high levels of stress and anxiety limit our ability to fight infection, the closeness created and affirmed by touching and hugging can promote more excellent health and well-being. Research even suggests that huggers won hands-down in being less likely to get a cold. And even if huggers did get a cold, they had less severe symptoms and faster recovery.
While our society is recalibrating what safe social interaction looks like, it’s every bit as important that we don’t sacrifice our hugs. Social isolation and loneliness increase instances of premature death, and research has even linked Oxytocin levels to suicidality. We are intensely social creatures, and giving and receiving touch is an instinctual part of what it means to be human. When we embrace this fact, nature rewards us with benefits to our physical and mental health.