To Touch and Be Touched: Physical Connection and Mental Health

When you think of troublemaking middle schoolers, you might picture them doing things like smoking or talking back to adults. When I was in the 6thgrade, while those things were happening too, we often got in trouble for– wait for it – excessive hugging. That’s right, our school administrators had to reprimand us for being late to class because we were busy giving each other hugs! Sure, maybe sometimes we had crushes on each other, but for the most part, I just remember wanting to be close, and feel close, to my friends. For us, it also felt grown-up to greet each other as adults would. That meant hugging.

I would have been very surprised if you had told me how small a role physical touch actually plays in the average American adult’s life. Western culture puts very little value on touch, and we pay for it with our mental health. Studies have shown that touch rewires our brain for the better: it lowers our stress levels, improves our working memory, and improves the function of our immune system.

Babies who aren’t touched can stop growing and even die. This phenomenon doesn’t go away with age. If our worldview starts to feel a little blue or we feel disconnected, our first thought tends to be, “What’s wrong with me?” However, we rarely stop think about how isolated we may be in our day-to-day lives. Nearly one out of three people live alone in Los Angeles, and those folks probably commute to work alone in the car too. Where is our daily dose of human touch?

Romantic touch has its own benefits (like how kissing conveys important physiological information to the brain), but platonic touch is often overlooked. There are many ways to try meeting more of your own needs for platonic touch with consent. Experiment with hugging your friends at the beginning and end of time spent together. Even if you’re not a “hugger” by nature, you might find that it makes you feel more connected to your friends, and perhaps more connected in general. If you feel comfortable and it seems appropriate, you can also ask a professional, like a doctor or therapist, for a hug at the end of your session. Scheduling a massage or facial is another way to enjoy platonic human contact.

Other types of touch can be highly beneficial as well. One of the reasons emotional support animals are so powerfully effective is because of the power of touch. Petting and playing with an animal lowers stress hormones and can have a positive impact on symptoms of anxiety and depression. Taking time to connect with yourself throughout the day can be impactful as well. Physical touch releases oxytocin, and giving yourself a hug or caress on the arm has a similar biochemically positive effect as receiving touch from someone else. Taking time to connect with yourself can give you the opportunity to show yourself compassion. Some examples of this would be giving yourself a hug, placing your hand on your heart, or gently rubbing your arm.

Our culture has de-emphasized the power of touch, and we become increasingly disconnected from it as our daily lives become more online. Reminding ourselves of the power of a simple touch on the arm or hug can have many benefits for our mental health and social lives.

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