Well, the immediate answer sounds obvious – because it feels good, and we’ve been doing it since we were babies by holding hands. But there’s a lot more to touching than just holding hands. When you’re in love, it feels great to show it to the world by holding your partner’s hand. That’s because our hands and fingertips contain one of the largest concentrations of nerve-endings. OK, you say, and what happens then? A hormone called Oxytocin (aka “the love hormone,”) starts surging through our bodies. This hormone increases communication and empathy between partners, creates a bond, makes us feel loved and improves the quality of relationships (improve your relationship). Holding hands with someone you love lowers your blood pressure as well.
What else is going on?
But are there other things happening when we touch? It doesn’t always have to be about romantic love, of course. Cortisol, one of our major stress hormones, decreases when we touch one another. When we have elevated cortisol levels, our skin becomes more sensitive. Think about what happens when a friend or a teammate touches your hand, hugs you or pats you on the back. Even those touches relieve stress and make you feel good and perhaps even better about yourself. Just think about how great you feel after a relaxing massage?
“I wanna hold your hand”
Wow! Wouldn’t that be a great name for a song- ya think? A warm, gentle touch has additional benefits, according to a study from Behavioral Medicine. What happens when we feel pain? We tend to tighten our muscles. Take childbirth, for example, where we often find partners grasping their wives’ hands during labor. And what happens when we get scared? Doesn’t someone holding our hands make us feel better and safer? Have you ever reached out to hold someone’s hand in the dark? It’s a natural reaction for most people. Can you remember holding your parent’s hand when walking in a crowd? This probably not only made you feel safer, it most likely made your parents feel safer, too.
The Bucharest Project
We all need sensory stimulation, and as odd as it may seem, holding hands can improve your physical wellbeing. Some studies have shown that institutionalized children “suffer physically and mentally from not being touched.” The Bucharest project studied “136 Romanian orphans, ranging from six months to three-years-old. Their intent was to understand how a child develops without being rocked to sleep or lovingly held.” The results were shocking! The children studied “couldn’t perform well when it came to cognitive ability, motor development and language. And they also struggled with their emotions. Many of the orphans developed mental disorders.” And what’s more, the same appears to hold true for adults who don’t receive regular human touch. They suffer from soothing called skin hunger or touch hunger and are more likely to suffer from mental and emotional problems, like depression and anxiety disorders.
Electronics instead of “electricity”
The current preference for digital media over personal physical contact may also be affecting people negatively, according to Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute (TRI) at the University of Miami/Miller School of Medicine. A small, but alarming Touch Research Institute study suggests that American teenagers touch each other less than French teenagers do. Moreover, the study seems to indicate that American teenagers display more aggressive verbal and physical behavior. Dr. Field hypothesizes that it has to do with the U.S. now being almost a “touch-phobic society.”
The wonders of massage
TRI is examining the potential of how massage may help premature babies to grow and possibly reduce depression in pregnant women so that they are less likely to deliver prematurely. “If every preemie (premature baby) was massaged in the U.S.,” Field suggests, “in one year that would save about $4.8 billion in hospital costs, because on average they get out of the hospital six days earlier,” Dr. Field says. She also uses massage to treat people with arthritis and to reduce depression and sleep problems in veterans who suffer from PTSD. “Touch reduces pain because of the serotonin that’s released, and with the pressure on receptors during physical exercise, you get more deep sleep,” Field says.
Use with caution
Obviously, this is a “touchy” subject that’s subjective and open to a wide range of interpretations. Further clouding the waters is the focus on “unsolicited and unwanted” touching taking place right now – which is definitely warranted – but which could possibly add to the confusion of knowing when and who to touch. In the end, we all need human contact to thrive. Our bodies seem to be hardwired that way from the beginning. Touch is a gift we can all benefit from. We just need to be careful about how we use this gift.