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Touch: why it is vital to our health and wellbeing

There is nothing like a global pandemic to remind us of the importance of physical touch. All of us lost elements of touch during the hard lockdowns – even if it was just a handshake or a pat on the back. Though things are more or less back to normal, there is a lingering mistrust of hug and touch that will likely persist long into the future. And the amount we touch each other has already been affected by factors beyond the viral – such as technology. 

Tiffany Field of Miami University’s Touch Research Institute travelled to airports to study how people interacted, and what she found was pretty shocking. No one was touching each other. Everyone was on their phones. “I think social media has been really detrimental to touch,” she said. “Being on your phone is distancing people physically from each other. It used to be in airports, you’d see people hugging and napping on each other. Now they’re just not touching.”

There is such a thing as touch starvation, and it has real, detrimental effects on everything from your physical to your mental health. Studies have found that people who lack touch suffer more from immune system diseases and shower higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which raises your heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension, slows your digestion and disturbs sleep. Sensory deprivation has also been associated with borderline personality disorder, and in its extreme form, it can even trigger post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Touch and its powerful effects became a site of real scholarly interest in the 1990s after a now-famous study was conducted in an understaffed orphanage in Romania in which touch-deprived children had strikingly low growth development levels for their age group. This followed on from a 1960s experiment that may have inspired the animal rights movement. Harry Harlow gave baby monkeys wire and cloth “mothers”, and even when the wire “mothers” had the milk, the babies still preferred the cloth ones to cuddle with. 

Field found in her work that infants in neonatal wards had better outcomes when they were massaged because touch would stimulate their immune systems. She also found this in men with HIV and women with breast cancer. Touch lowered cortisol levels and helped the immune system. Comparing toddlers in American and Parisian playgrounds, she found that the American toddlers were touched less, touched each other less and were markedly more aggressive. 

The type of touch doesn’t seem to matter that much – hand holding, hugs, cuddling – although a 2017 study found the ideal touching rate was 3cm a second. This releases oxytocin, the love hormone. Light touch stimulates a person’s heart rate, whereas moderate pressure slows it. 

The best place to find moderate all-body pressure? A massage. toast&co offers a full-body experience, as well as a neck, back and shoulder, and a foot and ankle one. If massage is not your thing, you can get some of your fix of touch with a manicure or a pedicure. The hand or foot is always lovingly handled and gently stroked and pressed while the nails are looked after. 

No matter where you find it – even if it’s cuddling a pet or, at a push, using a weighted blanket, which has shown some of the same benefit – touch is vital to our health and wellbeing, and never more than now, when it is more scarce than ever before. 

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