Dr. Chrissy Whiting-Madison
Even before global pandemics and civil unrest, we, as Americans, were already struggling with a slow death, a death caused by a phenomenon known as touch hunger.
Although social distancing has become a mantra chanted by many, it was already common to be uncomfortable with hugs and human touch. Whether a result of smaller households, greater social media consumption or longer life expectancy in general, people today have become more isolated than ever before. Just as we crave certain foods when we are hungry, or crave a nap when we are sleepy, we also crave human touch when we are lonely or isolated. Contrary to what many hug haters and social distance supporters believe – human touch – just like oxygen and nourishment, is a fundamental human need, a need becoming more and more neglected as the world continues to change and evolve (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201706/touch-hunger).
Research suggests the need for touch can go far beyond the need for human affection and interaction. In fact, scientists have found 4 ways your life can improve simply by increasing the amount of physical touch you choose to give and receive.
1. Being touched, appropriately of course, as a child leads to a decreased likelihood of becoming a violent adult. Further developmental research suggests that a lack of affection and bonding can result in lifelong emotional disturbances, such as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED) (https://www.helpguide.org/articles/parenting-family/attachment-issues-and-reactive-attachment-disorders.htm).
2. Touch promotes bonding and trust. This happens when the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex is stimulated; resulting in feelings of compassion and reward. Human touch is also associated with Oxytocin, also known as the love hormone. This hormone creates those amazing feelings associated with being in love (https://draxe.com/health/oxytocin/).
3. A correlation also exists between human touch and better health. Touch strengthens your immune system, helps you sleep better, reduces your stress levels and can create natural pain killers within your body (https://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/benefits-of-human-touch).
4. Touch can promote teamwork. Touch has been shown to have an innate relationship with better cooperation and compromise. In other words, teams that shake hands at the end of a meeting likely will prove to be more cohesive than the teams who simply leave the room (https://www.khca.org/files/2015/10/8-Reasons-Why-We-Need-Human-Touch-More-Than-Ever.pdf).
What if we are not able to engage in touching and hugging one another? Will all of these benefits be lost? Some researchers believe some alternatives do exist to the act of actually touching another human being. A weighted blanket, for example, has been shown to mimic the benefits of human touch in regard to sleep improvements and stress alleviation. Another alternative to human touch is yoga. By stimulating one’s own pressure points, one can actually simulate the benefits of human touch while being entirely alone (https://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/benefits-of-human-touch).
Setting replacements aside, physical touch is unimaginably important to human development and the growth of our culture. The growing preoccupation with social media and online presence versus personal physical contact, combined with the social and legal restrictions over physical contact in our schools and workplaces, may unintentionally affect the world negatively. To foster a safe social environment in this climate of compromised communication and relationships, we should intentionally hold on to physical touch. We need to find a way to live in a world free of touch hunger.