Your skin is the largest organ in your body. Day and night, it absorbs touch sensations that are continually sent to your brain. Some of these sensations you pay attention to, like when you are aware of your fingertips as they type on a keyboard.
Other sensations your brain ignores, categorizing them as “unimportant.” You can thank your brain for not bothering you about the feeling of your shirt or the constant sensation of air on your skin when you are trying to give a presentation or some other task requiring your attention.
Let’s be good stewards over this system to make sure we are giving it what it needs to help us function well.
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When you receive desired touch from another human (or animal), your brain releases a hormone called oxytocin. It makes you feel good all over, feel bonded to whomever you are touching and generates overall positive social vibes.
This is why medical professionals encourage mothers to hold their newborns skin-to-skin right after birth. This touch regulates the newborn’s temperature, heart rate, breathing and decreases crying.
Even as adults, we need touch to help regulate sleep, digestion, build a healthy immune system, lower stress and fight infections. Touch soothes our nerves.
In the 1950s, Harry Harlow conducted an interesting experiment in which he provided monkeys the choice of two mothers. One mother was made of wire and a bottle. The other mother was simply fuzzy cloth.
What Harlow discovered was that the monkeys spent almost all their time with the fuzzy cloth mother, even though she did not provide any water or food. While food may be necessary for survival, apparently touch is what sustains us.
This is so true. Without sufficient human contact children “fail to thrive” and can actually die from lack of touch.
Touch deprivation is a term used when you aren’t getting as much touch as you are accustomed to or, worse, when you aren’t getting any at all. This “skin hunger” causes you to crave physical contact with others and has a whole host of medical implications.
Touch starvation can cause stress, anxiety, depression or immune system disorders. Your body may start producing a stress hormone, called cortisol, at high levels, leading to high heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and breathing rate.
Over time, your immune and digestive systems tend to have problems. It may affect your sleep and make you susceptible to infections.
Emerging from the pandemic, most of us are coming out deprived and perhaps a bit apprehensive about touch. While avoiding the highly contagious coronavirus, we deprived our immune system of contact, which is so essential to keeping it functioning at its best.
Although touch is a basic human need and we may often feel desperate for it, using force or pressuring someone into any form of touch is inappropriate. No one is obligated to give into what you want. You are responsible to respect that boundary.
Obtaining verbal consent is very helpful in avoiding accidental coercion. This is especially true for children who are learning how to recognize their own sense of self and privacy needs. For example, if a child is not up to giving auntie a hug, there is no consent given. Sorry auntie, maybe next time.
The easiest way to integrate more touch into your life is to be more affectionate with your sweetheart and/or close family members.
Something as simple as holding a hand for a moment has been shown to quiet the brain when in a stressful situation. A daily 6-second kiss is often recommended for couples wanting to improve their relationships.
If you do not have a consenting sweetheart or family members with which it would be appropriate to be more touchy with, consider these alternatives:
- Singing and dancing are great substitutes to touch as they also boost oxytocin (that feel-good hormone) levels in the body.
- Weighted blankets can also soothe the nervous system, similar to touch. Just as Harlow’s monkeys enjoyed their “fluffy cloth mom,” you can cuddle up with a heavy blanket.
- Pets are wonderful sources of physical touch. Petting or playing with your pet is relaxing, provides you with needed contact and, as a bonus, they don’t tell your secrets or judge you too harshly.
- There are plenty of spas in Guam at which you can purchase a therapeutic massage. Massage can soothe depression, increase immune function and sharpen your attention. If the idea of a full-body massage sounds like too much, perhaps opt for a pedicure or manicure.
As you go throughout your day, remember to pay attention to your body’s need for connection, for touch. It’s as vital as the air you breathe, the food you consume and the beat of your heart.
Be kind to your body as well as others. Listen and watch intently to respect their desires as well. Don’t starve yourself; remember the need for nurturing touch.