The Power of Physical Connection
The Power of Physical Connection
In today’s society, we have become very disconnected from one another with all of our modern day technologies. Many studies have been done emphasizing the importance of physical touch starting from infancy and throughout the entire lifespan. As our mental and emotional well being are highly linked to our environment, including physical stimuli, studies have proven that physical contact and affection from others contributes greatly to our overall health.
Many have heard about Harlow’s monkey experiments in which he substituted the infant monkey’s real mothers with wire or wood clothed “mothers.” The monkey’s that were nursed with plain wire models, as opposed to those covered with foam and cloth, developed abnormal mental, emotional and social behavior. Later in life these hard wire-raised monkeys developed patterns of aggression, abuse and neglect. Similar experiments have been simulated in human infants. In three different studies it has been shown that infants receiving touch from an adult showed more positive emotional responses including less crying and more smiling, “…touch modulates negative emotions and generates positive ones.”(1) Studies have also revealed that the quality of touch determines the outcome: a nurturing touch leads to a sense of security and bonding while touch that relays any kind of negativity or apathy from the parent to the child can lead to later emotional and behavioral problems.
It is not just infants, however, that need comfort and the bond of love that is established only through physical touch. Although physical touch in adulthood varies by culture and upbringing, studies have shown its value in human social interaction and well-being. A study by Beier and Sternberg concluded that recently married couples who displayed a higher degree of mutual touching reported greater happiness. It was clear from one study that we have the ability to perceive emotions through touch. Matthew Hertenstein, a research psychologist at DePauw University, conducted a study in 2006 in which strangers were placed in a room separated by a barrier. They were allowed to reach through a hole to touch one another and were told to convey one of twelve emotions. Interestingly, participants were most able to accurately distinguish anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude and sympathy. Thus it is clear that our emotions can be shifted by external input from others through physical touch.
Studies in rats have concluded that the stress response involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA axis, is greatly influenced by physical touch. In a study by Caldji et al., increased maternal touch was shown to decrease corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) synthesis as well as release. As well, the same author showed that maternal touch decreased basal levels of corticosterone in both short term and long term stress response. It is only instinctual to conjecture that stress is modulated by physical touch in humans as well. An article titled, “Out of Touch: Is it Worth the Cost?” by Matthew Hertenstein, an author mentioned previously, states that, “With the exception of touching our closest friends and family, our society has placed significant proscriptions against touch making the U.S. one of the lowest contact cultures in the world.” Having worked with and encountered peoples from different cultures, I have frequently heard Europeans express that Americans are cold, detached and less likely to interact with their co-workers outside of work. It is now well known that physical touch decreases stress levels in humans through the HPA axis previously mentioned, and also increases the hormone oxytocin, an important hormone associated with bonding and intimacy. Hertenstein concludes, “ Many adults, especially those living without partners, experience lives of touch deprivation. Furthermore, at the end of life, many find themselves in nursing homes where, again, touch is in high demand, but in low supply.”(2).
Additionally, studies by Dr. Kathleen Light of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have concluded more about the positive effects of oxytocin release in hugs and cuddling. “Oxytocin does more than make us feel good. It lowers the levels of stress hormones in the body, reducing blood pressure, improving mood, increasing tolerance for pain and perhaps even speeding how fast wounds heal.” Another article by Lauren Suval reveals the relationship between physical touch and energy centers in the body, “The gentle pressure on the sternum and the emotional charge this creates activates the Solar Plexus Chakra. This stimulates the thymus gland, which regulates and balances the body’s production of white blood cells, which keeps you healthy and disease free.” In conclusion, it is clear that physical touch, including handholding, hugs, cuddling, and gentle affectionate strokes, are immensely health promoting for humans. Positive communication of physical touch has effects throughout the human mind, body and spirit. These far reaching healing vibrations can help with depression and anxiety as well as lead to reduced heart rate and blood pressure, increased immunity, increased sense of security, decreased stress and an overall sense of unconditional love, acceptance and caring.
In our current society, the lack of physical touch, affection and overall human connection cannot be more apparent as you walk through the streets or sit on subways, at restaurants, or doctors offices, and see people plugged in to electronics and not even conversing with one another. The rising popularity of professional cuddling and companion services such as The Snuggle Buddies and websites like Cuddle Comfort, are proving the need for unconditional love, kindness and compassion in today’s world. As quoted by psychotherapist Virginia Satir, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” The question you need to ask yourself is, are you getting the love and warmth that you need to thrive, or are you ignoring the innate human need for the powerful energy of physical touch?
Hertenstein, M. (2009). Out of Touch: Is it Worth the Cost? Retrieved December 31, 2016, from http://www.depauw.edu/learn/lab/publications/documents/touch/2009_Touch_out_of_touch.pdf (2)
Mercola. (2014, February 6). Fun Facts About Hugging. Retrieved December 31, 2016, from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/02/06/hugging.aspx
NIH. (2007, February). "The Power of Love- Hugs and Cuddles Have Long-Term Effects.". Retrieved December 31, 2016, from https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2007/february/docs/01features_01.htm
Pappas, S. (2015, June 4). Oxytocin: Facts About the 'Cuddle Hormone' Retrieved December 31, 2016, from http://www.livescience.com/42198-what-is-oxytocin.html
Schultheis, E. (1999, May). Harry F. Harlow. Retrieved December 31, 2016, from http://muskingum.edu/~psych/psycweb/history/harlow.htm
Suval, L. (n.d.). The Surprising Psychological Value of Human Touch. Retrieved December 31, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/03/10/the-surprising-psychological-value-of-human-touch/
Verkamp, J. M., Kerestes, A. M., & Holmes, R. M. (2007). The Communicative Functions of Touch in Humans , Nonhuman Primates , and Rats : A Review and Synthesis of the Empirical Research. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 132(1), 5–94. (1)