From the time we are held in our mother’s wombs, we are reliant on connection with other humans. We are born knowing we need each other to survive and this leads us to being wired to need positive touch.
Touch has the power to help us heal emotionally and physically. As dancers, most of us know on some level, just how important touch is to us. But just how vital is it to our wellbeing in the COVID-19 era? How can understanding touch help us stay resilient, connected, and healthy? And with partner dancing an achingly distant memory for almost 10 months ago, what can we do to make sure we are not starving for touch, or anxious about touching those we love?
Wired to touch:
Firstly, it is important to understand that as humans, we need positive touch. Admittedly, some more than others.
In fact, it is so hard wired into us that studies have proven young infants often born premature and isolated from touch due to being in Intensive care can die from lack of skin to skin contact. Failure to thrive syndrome in large part due to lack of skin to skin contact can have devastating and long reaching effects in those who survive too. The benefit premature infants gain from skin-to-skin contact with their mothers is measurable as long as 10 years after birth both physically and psychologically.1
In later life, touch is one of the key ways we feel acknowledged by our self and others. All those little touches to your face, your arms, and hands, they are all ways of self-acknowledging ‘I am real. I exist’, in times of isolation and reduced social contact we tend to increase these self-affirming touches in order to keep ourselves going. To know more, look up Transactional Analysis and Strokes. We will try to cover this in a later post.
The healing power of touch, the evidence is compelling:
“People who like interpersonal touch tend to have higher levels of well-being and lower levels of loneliness”3
A 25-30 second hug can release enough endorphins to lower blood pressure, reduce cortisol (your stress hormone), boost your immune system and decrease anxiety, depression, loneliness and physical pain. Regular positive touch can reduce the likelihood of catching a cold and other common illness as well as reducing chronic pain in some cases. All of which lead us to living longer and happier lives.
In January 2020 BBC Radio 4 conducted ‘The Touch test’ in 40,000 people across 112 different countries and showed just how powerful touch is day to day, even as adults:
The results are in:
- 72% of people reported a positive attitude towards touch
- 43% of typical adults feel that society does not enable us to touch enough
- The leading reason people gave for why we did not touch enough was consent
- 88% of people liked public displays of affection by their partners
- People who like touch tend to score higher on extraversion, openness to new experiences and agreeableness, especially if it’s touch involving non-family members – It’s not stated in the results but I read that as Dance makes us better humans
- People who don’t like touch were more likely to be people who find it difficult to form trusting relationships
- The three most common words used to describe touch were: Comforting, Warm, Love
- 79% of people liked being touched by a friend and 63% disliked being touched by a stranger
- 61% of people said a hug from a partner before sleep had a positive effect on their sleep, whilst only 4% said it had a negative effect
So, we know Touch is good for us. We can even affirm with cold hard science what we all probably intuitively knew already, that dance, particularly social partner dancing, is exceptionally good for us.
But in the era of a global pandemic, when some of us almost physically ache from not being able to partner dance, hug freely and interact socially as we would like, how can we make sure we access the healing power of touch?
Embodiment practices teach us that touch can go beyond skin to skin. Moving in relation to another, even from a distance has been shown to have beneficial effects, particularly in the form of dance. So even form a safe distance, moving in relation to another, can help us feel more connected, happier, and healthier.
It perhaps should go without saying that if you have others in your household or social bubble, hug them tight, long, and often. And don’t forget those small reassuring touches on the hand, arm, or back, they are important too.
When you are alone, whilst nothing can exactly replace the touch of another, many things can stimulate similar endorphins. Anything that moves your skin will stimulate pressure receptors and, release some of these endorphins. Maybe try self-massage, brushing your hair gently, running a soft blanket along your skin or touching different items in your home mindfully. Taking time to notice the different textures they bring. All of this gives the same kind of stimulation as skin touch.
Other activities can include:
- Riding a bike
- Hugging yourself
- Solo dancing
- Meditation, particularly remembering a deep warm enjoyable hug, really focusing on the sensations and details
- Mindfulness practices
And let’s not forget our furry friends. If you have a pet, hugging or stroking them is vitally important for you both, so give them some extra snuggles if they will let you.
Of course, in the end, nothing can quite replace the importance of human touch. We all yearn for the day when we can mingle, hug and dance in the numbers we once did. But, until we can safely socialise without the need to socially distance, we can do our best to understand our needs and look after ourselves the best we can.
Sending you many socially distanced but heartfelt hugs. The WCS Wellness team.
*As a note, we mention positive touch, as unwanted touch is obviously very detrimental, and whilst we are social dancers we feel it is important to be aware that everyone’s touch needs and comfort level with touch is different. If in doubt always ask before hugging or otherwise touching your partners, please.
Want to learn more, check out he Anatomy of Touch from BBC radio 4: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000n484
- Ruth Feldman, Zehava Rosenthal, Arthur I. Eidelman. Maternal-Preterm Skin-to-Skin Contact Enhances Child Physiologic Organization and Cognitive Control Across the First 10 Years of Life. Biological Psychiatry, 2014; 75 (1): 56 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.08.012
- The anatomy of touch, the results, BBC radio 4, accessed November 2020: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/58WGxwkrmrLclT4tcDYX4PB/nine-things-we-learned-from-the-world-s-largest-study-of-touch
- The Texas Medical Centre accessed November 2020, Touch starvation is a consequence of COVID-19’s physical distancing: https://www.tmc.edu/news/2020/05/touch-starvation/