There is simply no denying that life can be hard, even cruel. I’ve learned this more than once in my life. Few, if any, of us go through life consistently getting all the affirmation and pleasures that would offset the hardships that inevitably come our way. Fortunately for us, our bodies are equipped to provide the ability to cope with even the most difficult circumstances. We generate our own natural pain and stress relievers through our positive physical contact with other people.
Extensive research by the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute has revealed that human touch has wide-ranging physical and emotional benefits for people of all age groups. In the Institute’s experiments, touch lessened pain, improved pulmonary function, increased growth in infants, lowered blood glucose and improved immune function. Human touch is important for all ages, but by the time children reach their teen years, they receive only half as much touching as they did in the early part of their lives. Adults touch each other even less.
From the time we are infants we learn to find pleasure in skin-to-skin contact with others. It appears that we are dependent on copious amounts of this kind of comforting and pleasurable contact for both physical and emotional development. When we transition from childhood to adolescence, we simply move our source of physical contact from our family to our friends. However, the special pleasure of human, skin to skin, contact never loses its importance.
There is only one problem. Over the span of our life there are limited times when we have regular and consistent access to enough of that kind of contact. Even if we are in a relationship with an active sex life, we do not necessarily have access to the physical pleasure when we need it to lessen the pains of life.
I miss that touch that can only come from another human being. Sexual touching is great, but any kind of physical contact is welcome. A friendly hand on your arm or shoulder. A pat on the back. A hug from a friend. Then there are the more intimate touches. Someone running their hands through your hair. A hand brushing your cheek. Slow dancing with someone. Once you get past those touches, then it moves usually from intimate to sensual. A kiss on the lips. A nuzzle in your ear. After that usually comes sexual touch.
I miss all those touches, from the simple to the sexual, but so often, I just crave the simple touch of another human being on my body. Of course touch is not the only sense that we crave, but it is an important one. Besides having physical needs for food, cleanliness and shelter, we also have touch needs. Touch deprived children tend to be the more aggressive and violent ones. They lack the experience to discern whether or not touch is good or bad.
Ever had cold feet at night? People had a remarkable solution to this problem in the Middle Ages. Many nobles in medieval Europe had large beds that allowed a noble, his wife, their children, some servants, and his knights to sleep together in the dead of winter. If this sleeping arrangement sounds a little too cozy, this is probably because modern people like you and I have come to regard the practice of sleeping together with one’s entire household as shameful and uncivilized. Indeed, over the centuries, various forms of interpersonal touch have become less and less common, crushed under an onslaught of changing cultural values and new technology. We increasingly view touch as unhygienic and even invasive, as in the case of sexual harassment, for example. And isolating ourselves behind phones and laptop screens has only exacerbated the trend.
We live in such a busy, crowded world, yet it’s so easy for many of us to go days, even weeks or months without touching or being touched by others. While we might not notice the effects of not being touched right away, it can negatively affect our mood, our confidence and our health. We are only beginning to understand the holistic way our bodies work and the relationship between our emotional well being and our physical health.
We are social beings, and although we all fall in different places on the introversion – extroversion scale, we all need to have that sense of connection to other members of humanity. While some of that connection can come from having conversations with others, touch also plays an important role in human communication.
Simply touching another person can make us feel more secure and less anxious. It can make us feel grounded and safe and not so alone. It’s not just children who could use a warm, reassuring hug to make things a little better, so if you’re feeling like a bundle of nerves, go ahead and ask for a hug.
Studies have shown that those that get regular touch often have lower blood pressure than those that don’t. Even having a pet can have beneficial effects! Touch can also slow the heart rate and help speed recovery times from illness and surgery. It’s harder to get into a pessimistic funk when you feel the confidence of being connected to others. Touch can make people feel more optimistic and positive and less cynical and suspicious. A positive, trusting attitude towards others can reduce tension in our daily lives and improve our relationships.
Scientists are just discovering how truly important it is to exercise all our physical senses for proper brain and emotional development. All the various kinds of touch from butterfly kisses to deep tissue massage send our brains the physical inputs it needs to make sense of the world. So, along with touching other people and pets, make time to explore different textures and touch sensations such as letting cool sand run through your fingers or taking a warm relaxing bath.