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Are You Touch Deprived? It’s Not as Naughty as It Sounds

by Carrie Borzillo - March 14 , 2022


Photo Credit: by RODNAE, Pexels.com
Photo Credit: by RODNAE, Pexels.com

The isolation, social distancing, lockdowns, and lack of usual communal activities from the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on people’s mental health worldwide. Studies on the impact of the pandemic show that there are 53 million new cases of major depressive disorders and 76 million new cases of anxiety disorders in the past year. On top of that, all those fist-bumps instead of handshakes or hugs are not helping the situation either.

Touch Research Institute’s 2021 study on the effects of the lockdown revealed that while 21% of those surveyed lived alone, 68% said they felt touch deprived. Also known as touch starvation or skin hunger, this is a condition that happens when one does not get as much physical touch (and we don’t mean the sexual kind) as they are used to, or any at all.

This is why Global Wellness Institute (GWI) has started the initiative, Global Massage Makes Me Happy & Healthy Day, which happens on March 20 as an hour-long online event. (March 20, by the way, is also the UN’s International Day of Happiness). An array of health and wellness experts will share information about wellness and massage trends for the year and highlight the scientific reasons why the ancient practice of massage is beneficial for the mind, body, and soul. Anyone can join this event via Zoom: Meeting ID: 882 1433 1601 Passcode: 076484.

Here’s what you need to know….

The Background

Dr. Tiffany Field, founder and director of the University of Miami School of Medicine’s Touch Research Institute, medical spokesperson for the GWI Massage Makes Me Happy Initiative, and one of the presenters at the March 20 event, embarked on her research when she visited orphanages in Romania several years ago. She found that the children’s stunted physical and emotional growth was directly related to a lack of touch.

“I think parents have to make a special effort to provide as much touch as they can. Holding hands, hugging, cuddling, they’re all pretty good. What we find is that when you apply more pressure, moderate pressure, as in a hug or giving a person a back rub, the effects are more positive than providing less pressure,” she said in an interview with Berkeley University’s Greater Good magazine.

“Light stroking is a bit aversive to most people because they feel like they’re being tickled,” she continues. “Heart rate decreases when you’re getting moderate pressure. Heart rate increases when you’re getting light pressure. Same with blood pressure. When we looked at brain waves, we get an increase in theta waves, which is what typically accompanies relaxation when we do moderate pressure.”

Over the years, Touch Therapy Institute has completed over 100 studies on touch and massage, documenting benefits including enhancing growth and development of preterm infants, reducing depression, attentional disorders, and pain syndromes, and increasing immune function in chronic illnesses. “After 40 years of research, we have yet to find a chronic or systematic human malady that massage does not aid,” says Dr. Field.

The Importance of Touch

Starting at birth, human touch is vital to our mental and physical health. This is when doctors encourage new mothers to hold their baby right after birth to start the bond early and to promote healthy development. This need for skin-to-skin contact carries through adulthood and is thought to be crucial for building healthy relationships by stimulating the “happy hormones” oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine.

The Symptoms

Feeling overwhelmingly lonely or deprived of affection is the main symptom, but Healthline also lists these symptoms:

Depression

● Anxiety

● Feeling lonely

● Craving affection or touch

● Stress

● Low satisfaction in relationships

● Difficulty sleeping

● Subconsciously doing things to simulate touch, such as taking long, hot baths or showers, wrapping up in blankets, and even holding on to a pet.

Additionally, WebMD reports that when your body doesn’t get enough touch, the stress and anxiety it can cause can lead to your body making more cortisol. Cortisol, a.k.a., the stress hormone can cause your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and breathing rate to increase, which is not good for your immune and digestive systems. Long-term touch starvation can even trigger post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Remedies

Global Wellness Institute’s research shows that massage therapy supports physical and emotional well-being. “We created a toolkit on our website with 50 ways to celebrate on March 20,” explains Massage Makes Me Happy & Healthy initiative chair Lynda Wolfe. “We’re recommending things as simple as: getting a massage or purchasing a massage gift card for someone else or even having a foot massage party with friends & family. It’s all about connecting and finding ways to make everyone feel happy and healthy.”

If massage therapy or physical touch is not available, WebMD says that some activities that don’t include physical contact with others can still help. This includes video chatting so you can visually interact with others, doing online exercise classes in a social setting, singing, and dancing, and interacting with pets. “Though they’re not human, playing with your pet can help you stay relaxed. Because it’s a form of interaction, it could ease some touch starvation symptoms. Studies show that oxytocin levels peak in dog owners when they caress their pets,” reports the site.

Likewise, Dr. Field recently gave this advice for people who live alone or don’t have someone close to them for physical touch: “To single people who don't have anybody touching them, they need to do self-touch. They need to do yoga. They need to walk around the room stimulating the pressure receptors on their feet. They can get the stimulation they need by lying on the floor and doing crunches or sit ups. All of that will contribute very similar effects to being hugged or just shaking someone else’s hand.”

Other activities to try to relieve touch deprivation symptoms include listening to ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), which you can find anywhere you watch videos (YouTube, social media). ASMR are low, or soft, sounds designed to give you tingles and make you feel relaxed, such as whispering, light fingernail tapping, brushing hair, and other similar activities. Self-cuddling or self-hugs are also recommended. This is the simple act of wrapping your arms around yourself and enjoying a hug or laying in a fetal position with your arms around your legs.

Even self-care, such as getting your hair or nails done, allows for safe touching by your stylist that can stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system. Warm baths can do the same, and don’t forget there are self-massagers for your neck, back, and tight muscles to try out as well.

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