Human skin is the largest organ of the body, comprising a total of about 20 square feet. Skin protects the body from the elements, helps regulate body temperature, and facilitates the sense of touch. Skin is equipped with nerves, receptors, and sensors that transmit environmental information to the brain.
Touch is the first sense that humans develop in the womb. Research has determined that the sense of touch is present in embryos as small as 1.5 centimeters. Touch is the most fundamental means of contact with the external world and is vital to human development. In fact, people who do not receive regular human touch – a condition known as skin hunger or touch hunger – are more likely to suffer from mental and emotional conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders.
Studies show that wanted and caring touches – such as holding hands, hugging, kissing, giving backrubs, and other gestures of attention and love – help strengthen bonds between people. Author Jim Butcher explains: “There is a primal assurance in being touched, in knowing that someone else, someone close to you, wants to be touching you. There is a bone-deep security that goes with the brush of a human hand, a silent, reflex-level affirmation that someone is near, that someone cares.”
Ay, There’s the Rub
Multiple studies have concluded that touching and being touched stimulate the hypothalamus area of the brain to produce oxytocin. Oxytocin – also known as the love hormone – is a neurotransmitter that increases the feelings of safety, affection, and trust. Oxytocin is essential for the performance of basic physiological functions, including reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, decreasing pain sensitivity, and boosting mood.
Touching not only releases oxytocin, but it helps reduce the levels of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress or threats. Studies have shown that as little as five minutes of touching is sufficient to reduce cortisol levels in the bloodstream, as well as release the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin (the body’s natural antidepressant). In effect, touching sets off a domino reaction because receiving more feel-good chemicals and less stress-related ones also helps fight off disease and infection. For example, there is a growing body of research demonstrating that chronic stress can impact everything from brain function to immune response.
In addition, people who touch and are touched form better relationships and have higher levels of intimacy. Research indicates that older adults who are in regular physical contact with others have lower blood pressure and lower levels of stress. Additionally, they are better able to tolerate pain and less likely to be depressed. Conversely, those who suffer from skin hunger are more likely to struggle with their health, happiness, social support, relationship satisfaction, and attachment security.
Connected, But Not in Touch
Attorney Greg Bishop points out that older adults are now more connected than ever before. Unfortunately, much of that connection is digital. From text messages and instant messages to webcams and video chats to social media interactions through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, and others – older adults are pretty much dialed in. Unfortunately, many of them are missing out on one of the most important forms of communication – human touch – and the repercussions are severe. For example, a recent report by the Campaign to End Loneliness in the United Kingdom concluded:
- Loneliness, living alone and poor social connections are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day
- Loneliness is worse for you than obesity
- Lonely people are more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease, and depression
- Loneliness is likely to increase your risk of death by 29%
- Half a million older people in the U.K. go at least five days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all
- 2/5 of all older adults say that television is their main company
Mr. Bishop notes that because technology is becoming the de facto way to connect, physical contact is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Indeed, one primary source of touch for many is a touch screen. It is not uncommon, for example, to see a group of friends sitting at a restaurant, each engrossed on their own cellphone; or notice families waiting to board a flight, with parents focused on laptops, teens playing video games, and younger children entertained by cartoons on their iPad.
Human touch is a gift of love and affection that is given freely to another but received by both.
Matthew Hertenstein, director of the Touch and Emotion Lab at DePauw University, explains: “Most of us, whatever our relationship status, need more human contact than we’re getting.” Mr. Bishop suggests that retirement is an opportunity to be more purposeful in reaching out and touching those we love. Regardless of the type of home in which you grew up, it is never too late to show physical affection. For those who are unaccustomed to touching, take it slow, and let it evolve naturally – it will take time to develop new habits and feel comfortable in doing so. For those who grew up in a more touchy-feely environment but touch less often now, begin a purposeful effort to touch those you love. Either way, look for natural opportunities to pat someone on the back, provide a reassuring touch on the arm, place an arm around a struggling shoulder, and offer a comforting hug.
About Greg Bishop, Attorney
Greg Bishop is a business-oriented corporate attorney located in Park City, UT, who always strives for improvement. He makes it a practice to only hire people who are smarter than him so that his team can raise the bar in helping the company be successful. He is passionate about living life to the fullest and helping others reach their full potential