We humans are social creatures.
Whether you’re an introvert, or extrovert, or a blend of both, our body and brain are wired to seek connectivity. And connection is different than company. You can be in a room full of people and still feel alone.
As humans, we’re also wired to crave physical touch. It is our first communication from when we were infants. Something happens, however, as we get older, and we convince ourselves or we follow social cues that says we don’t need touch as much or at all.
The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that touch is the best-kept secret of our five senses and seeking more of it can give you a huge mental and physical boost.
Disconnection has only increased in the last few years. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General released an 82-page advisory in 2023 saying that loneliness has reached epidemic proportions, and that social disconnection is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The Surgeon General is Dr. Vivek Murthy and he says this: “Loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing”.
Another term related to this is called being touch starved, which is when you have had little to no touch from another.
So why is touch so important? Positive physical contact causes our brain to release oxytocin, this is known as the “bonding hormone.” This stimulates the release of other happy hormones like dopamine and serotonin, and it reduces stress hormones, such as cortisol and norepinephrine.
Research suggests that being touched can also lower your heart rate and blood pressure, lessen depression and anxiety, boost your immune system, and even relieve pain in some cases.
Studies have also shown that oxytocin can help you feel more generous, more empathetic and nurturing, more collaborative, and even more grateful — all of which can help you become a better partner, parent, friend, or co-worker. Gratitude, in particular, is a powerful bonding emotion that many scientists have even deemed as psychological “glue”.
Touch even is one of the five “love languages” that was popularized by author Gary Chapman that is commonly used in psychology to identify preferred expressions of love and affection in relationships.
Touch is first processed by the skin, understandably, and that’s made up of billions of cells. These send neurochemical signals to the somatosensory cortex in your brain, this is where we register temperature, pressure, pain, and touch.
Helena Wasling is a neuroscientist who has studied this brain science of touch for more than a decade. She even has a TEDx talk about how touch helps fight off loneliness, and I’ll put a link to that in show notes. One of the things she says is this: “Being touched is a basic need, like having dinner when you are hungry. You need to have this touch in order for you to reach a good, steady state in your body. You need it so you can feel safe enough to go out and explore the world.” Indeed.
Now this is all interesting, but how do you get this need met if you don’t have ready or regular access to a person or even a pet to touch?
Comfort can be self-given, say the researchers.
So suggestions include doing a self massage on high-tension spots like your jaw and neck or doing a massage on soothing centers of your body like your feet and your hands. Take a long shower or bath, consider trying a weighted blanket or a body pillow. One of my favorite things is a heated neck wrap or eye mask-you just put it in the microwave and put it on you and it’s just heaven. Or, if you’re comfortable, treat yourself to touch from a professional massage or spa service. Or when you’re getting your haircut ask for an extra long shampoo. If you know somebody who has a very happy pet, offer to pet sit or just go and hang out.
It’s up to us to find spots to give some self care. Create space for comfort. It matters. Physical connection creates emotional bonds, and that includes to ourself to feeling better about ourself. And in today’s digital and disconnected world, connection is one of the most valuable currencies there is.
Invest often in it. You’re worth it.