Why Human Touch Is Necessary to Our Wellbeing
Also: 4 Proven Ways to Bring the Benefits of Touch to the Workplace
By Hanna Kim - November 12, 2019
Touch Is Fundamental to Humanity
I signed up for a yoga class recently and felt the urge to skip out last minute because I felt pressed for time. I decided to go, knowing I would feel more energized throughout the day by starting my morning with movement. Coincidentally, this class’s theme happened to reflect this exact blog topic.
The teacher began the class with a comment on how limited human connection is for so many of us these days. We live in a touch-deprived society, where displays of physical affection are being squeezed further out of our social norms. Communication often occurs on a device screen, where a handshake or hug is entirely out of the equation.
She too believes touch is necessary now more than ever. She took advantage of how full the class was and fold us to hold hands to support one another into some poses. Nervous laughter erupted in the room as we hesitantly followed her instruction. My own initial discomfort seemed to melt away as we progressed through the sequence, with the teacher continuing to incorporate her lesson on the importance of human connection.
As Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., who leads the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, puts it, “To be human is to be emotional — to feel things.” He notes how the fundamental nature of touch is ingrained in our language. We might say, “I’m touched by your concern,” when someone shows they care and can describe someone who is emotionally clueless as “tactless,” which literally means they lack the ability to touch.
Unwanted touch is always inappropriate, and violations should be acknowledged and handled with justice. Our public environments increasingly favor ‘no-touch’ policies to dissuade nonconsensual physical contact, but a hypervigilant attitude towards any physical contact also limits the well-meaning contact we need for our wellbeing.
Studies have found students are twice as likely to speak in class when their teachers offer them a friendly pat and patients with complex diseases have higher rates of survival when their doctors give them a pat on the back and make eye contact with them.
What Are the Consequences of Touch Deprivation?
It makes sense that while physical contact is vital to our wellbeing, evidence would also show touch deprivation is harmful to our health and development. One well-documented case study observes the behavior of children raised in highly understaffed orphanages during and after communist rule in Romania.
Far too many of these orphans were grossly neglected during the critical years of early childhood development, which led to a host of health problems including compulsive self-soothing, attachment disorders, cognitive delays, gastrointestinal issues, and immune health issues. Those who were lucky to receive 30 minutes of loving touch a day (hugs and attention from volunteers) before the age of 2 were able to see a reversal of these negative impacts.
Similarly, those who are most severely isolated today in solitary confinement through the US prison system also experience a swath of mental, behavioral, and physical health problems. A joint report between the UNC School of Law and ACLU even makes a case to view solitary confinement as a form of torture.
As one former leading expert on criminal justice, Norval Morris (deceased), puts it, “you search in vain for humanizing touches or physical traces that human activity takes place there.” This extreme level of loneliness is fatal to human beings because it puts people “into a kind of defensive state where the levels of cortisol are raised,” according to Kellie Payne, research and policy manager at the Campaign to End Loneliness
The Impact of Limited Social Connection in Our Communities
Most of us are fortunate to not live in such extremely dire conditions but suffer from a higher level of loneliness than we should be experiencing. Adults who are over the age of 50 are most likely to be lonely – a survey in the U.K. found that 40% of older adults (3.9 million) say their television is their main source of company, and an eighth of this population (0.5 million) goes 5-6 days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone.
Tiffany Field, Ph.D. is the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Field is a thought leader in the blossoming field of touch science. She argues the impacts of extreme loneliness can amount to a chronic medical condition, and lonely folks are more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease and depression than those who have adequate social connections.
The 2017 National Survey on Drug and Health Use found 7.1% of all adults in the US (17.3 million) have experienced a major depressive episode in the last year. Nearly half of the economic costs are attributed to depression-related absences from work and decreased productivity at work. (Conversely, check out how encouraging a culture of happy employees can improve operations.)
The Healing Benefits of Human Touch:
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The benefits of touch are apparent in infancy, old age, and throughout the course our lives. The state of mental and emotional health of our communities at large are reflective of our limited social connections. An ongoing procession of research continues to show the emotional and physical benefits of touch. Wouldn’t you agree with “it’s time to recover the social power of touch?”
Develop and Maintain Relationships
Touch is an important tool for humans to use in order to communicate emotions and maintain relationships — both romantic or otherwise. We use this physical form of communication to inspire compassion. Compassion is the ability to see the humanity in one another and engage with others in a way that supports genuine connection.
Touch is the glue that holds society together. We most immediately see how physical affection binds parents and children, siblings, and couples to one another. Less obvious is how touch operates in our greater communities.
Promote Teamwork and Friendliness
Physical contact can create more effective teams in the workplace. Dr. Keltner performed a study on ‘tactile communication’ amongst NBA players. He saw a correlation between the incidences of celebratory touch, like high fives, that occurs within a team and the ability to play more cooperatively and win more games.
Dr. Keltner finds touch strengthens social bonds between us and those in our communities. He notes a study from the Touch Research Institute that found French teenagers who live in a “high contact” culture and were far more likely to engage in friendly physical contact in comparison to their American peers. The French teens were also far less likely to display symptoms of aggression than their counterparts across the Atlantic.
Human touch is one of the best stress relievers. Recall the comfort we feel when we are hugged by a loved one, and how much your dog or cat craves belly rubs. When we are touched, pressure receptors under our skin are stimulated, and this helps “slow down heart rate, blood pressure and the release of cortisol,” according to Dr. Field.
The vagus nerve is also activated by touch, further calming cardiovascular stress and releasing oxytocin, which helps manage anxiety and stress hormones.
Humans are wired to be social creatures who thrive on connection to others – both at home and at work. Dr. Field finds that people experiencing clinical depression also often suffer from ‘touch hunger,’ which can be measured by activity in the vagus nerve. A study on the benefits of massage on depression found massage brought up vagal activity and brought down symptoms of depression.
Enhance Your Immune System
We all know an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but so can a hug. One study found that hugs may give our immune systems a boost, protecting us from infection and illness. 404 healthy adults were exposed to the common cold virus, and those who felt more supported and were hugged more frequently were more likely to show decreased symptoms of sickness.
Dr. Field’s research on using massage as a tool to manage AIDS and cancer showed adults who received had an increase in the number of natural killer cells, which find and destroy virus-infected cells in our body. Massage also increased serotonin levels, which calmed participants and allowed them to spend more time in the deeper, restorative stages of sleep.
Office-Friendly Ways to Bring the Benefits of Touch to Your Employees
While the benefits of physical human contact are highly important, we want to offer them in a way that maintains proper workplace boundaries. You can make the benefits of touch available to your employees with these office-friendly ideas:
Book On-site Chair Massage:
Therapeutic touch from a licensed and trained professional offers even more benefits. Employees walk away from a quick professional chair massage session with reduced muscle tension, lower blood pressure, reduced stress and an improved mood, which all help with productivity.
Host A Puppy Party:
Therapy animals are a popular offering at colleges for students during finals. Many rescue organizations can deliver (adoptable) dogs to your office to help reduce stress during a busy week at the office. Dr. Linden mentions, “Even [a] stranger[‘s] touch, when it’s wanted, is pretty good. Even petting your dog. Even petting a dog that’s not yours.”
Make Self-Massage Tools Available:
Tiffany Fields found self-massage has all the benefits of a professional massage, and these benefits are most noticeable when this mode of self-care is practiced on a daily basis. Purchasing a few office-friendly massage tools like a TheraCane or even a few tennis balls employees can roll around their arms, upper back, and pecs to reduce stress and promote better sleep.
Encourage Employees to Get Moving:
It’s important to recognize not everyone is comfortable with the same level of physical contact, so it is good to offer options for everyone. Fields is an advocate for a regular yoga practice. She finds that this movement practice activates the body’s pressure receptors. LoDo Chair Massage also offers office-friendly yoga classes. Linden notes, “For the truly solitary, daily power walking stimulates pressure points. “It’s moving your limbs against each other.”