Have you touched someone todayÃ¢â‚¬”a friend, a peer, a family member, anyone? (We're talking platonic embraces and pats on the back, not intimate or arousing caresses.) According to new research, most people in the United States have limited daily one-on-one contact with non-significant others, likely because they're followingÃ¢â‚¬”and responding toÃ¢â‚¬”ingrained social cues, says Peter Andersen, Ph.D., a professor of nonverbal communication at San Diego State University.
For one thing, Americans tend to be less inclined to touch than people in many other cultures. For another, says Andersen, "both our modern society and technology have introduced even more reasons for us not to touch." Exhibit A: strict workplace policies that prohibit any touching between colleagues. Exhibit B: digital communication.
This hands-off MO has led to a new phenomenon called touch deprivation, and it affects huge swaths of the population, says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute in Miami. It's especially rampant among those who live alone and work around the clock. Cohabiting with your mate? It's possible that you still don't get enough nonsexual action, notes Matthew Hertenstein, Ph.D., author of The Tell: The Little Clues That Reveal Big Truths About Who We Are.
Here's why you should care: The less person-to-person contact you get, the more major health benefits you miss. New research shows that the power of touch goes well beyond tiny mood liftsÃ¢â‚¬”it has sweeping, and pretty surprising, physical and mental payoffs.
Moments of Impact
Every time someone lands a welcome touch on you, multitudes of crazy-sensitive pressure receptors in your skin ignite. They shoot a signal through your body's neural highway to your brain and adrenal glands, which begin to dial down production of the stress hormone cortisol. (Lower cortisol levels mean reduced blood pressure and lower heart rate, as well as higher quantities of natural killer cells, your immune system's best defense against infections and disease.)
At the same time, that touch has stimulated your parasympathetic nervous system, a.k.a. your "relaxation response," which, in turn, triggers an uptick in feel-good hormones such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. AndÃ¢â‚¬”just like that!Ã¢â‚¬”your outlook and immunity have improved. The more you work touch into your life, the more you'll be able to watch all these benefits become long-term, possibly even permanent.
There's more: Research shows that touch could be a pain-fighting aid. In one study, women who suffered bad headaches found relief through massage, possibly because those ahhh signals sent by the skin's pressure receptors reach the brain faster than pain signals. Such hands-on treatment also works with mental issues: Touch-induced happy brain chemicals, particularly dopamine and serotonin, can help curb depression and anxiety.
And then there are the psychological perks, says Hertenstein. His research found that touch is more effective than our faces or words at conveying feelings such as love, gratitude, and sympathy. Indeed, using light physical contact as a means of expressing yourself can be a boon to your emotional healthÃ¢â‚¬”and to all of your relationships, says Blake Eastman, founder of the Nonverbal Group in New York City. "In many cases, touch can quickly increase a sense of personal connection between the toucher and the touchee."
"People should make time for touch in their daily routines, the way they do for diet or exercise," says Field. Start by charting how much platonic physical contact you have in your life. If you look back on your day at bedtime and can't remember touching another personÃ¢â‚¬”and barely even your boyfriend or husbandÃ¢â‚¬”it's safe to say you need to step things up. Most mind-body centers offer touch therapy in the form of massage or even practices like reiki or acupuncture. But if those aren't your bag, the great news is you can start with. . .yourself. Limb-on-limb Pilates moves, scrubbing your skin with a loofah, rolling your feet over a tennis ballÃ¢â‚¬”any activity that stimulates the skin's pressure receptors will work, even if you're the one doing both the touching and the feeling.
Set a goal of 10 to 15 continuous minutes of touch per day, aiming for moderate pressure, says Field. Keep in mind that too-light strokes will actually tickle or arouse your nerves instead of calming them; too much force could trigger the body's fight-or-flight stress response.
Of course, the gold standard of healthful touching involves other people. Sign up for a partner yoga class with your bestie. (You'll strengthen your relationship and your core!) Or try to hug at least three friends or family members each day. Or, next time you're at a pal's house, offer to hold her baby or walk her pooch (yep, the touch effect works with pets, too). If you have a mate, make a point of holding hands when walking or trading off 10-minute shoulder rubs while watching your fave TV shows.
Just remember to always stay within a touch-appropriate zone. E.g., while touch can enhance your smarts and focusÃ¢â‚¬”both workplace boonsÃ¢â‚¬”it's best to be cautious when reaching out at the office. Review your company's guidelines, and if you're ever unsure about that high five or pat on the back, keep your hands to yourself.