Have you ever sat and watched the gorillas at the zoo? Volunteered at a hospital as a Baby Cuddler? Or embraced in a hug so heartfelt that you could feel your nervous system slow? Humans are made to be touched; it is one of our most basic primal needs. Emotional and physical benefits of touch are so significant that without it there is failure to thrive. Touch is also the foremost way to communicate compassion, to ourselves, as well as to loved ones and community.
Touch is such a basic need that even primates fail to thrive without it. If you have ever watched the gorillas at the zoo you will notice that they are constantly touching; greeting each other with nose-to-nose “hellos”, touching and embracing as a way of reassurance. They spend 10-20 % of their waking hours in grooming behaviors, as well as keep their babies on their backs almost nonstop¹.
Research shows that newborn touch therapy, such as rocking or cuddling increases preterm babies’ weight gain, improves brain development, builds trust, increases long-term trusting relationships, and reduces the length of stay in the NICU². Children naturally use touch to convey compassion. Often a child will hold the hand of a sad friend or family member with no prompting at all, just knowing intuitively that their touch is comforting.
Touch creates a physical reaction in our bodies in the form of the brain chemicals oxytocin (the cuddle hormone), or aka, “the love chemical”, serotonin (the happiness hormone), and dopamine (the feel-good hormone). These endorphins flood the brain every time we are touched, reducing heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels, lends to feelings of happiness, empathy and compassion.
Humans are made to be touched.
Studies have proven the benefits of human touch over and over again. A comforting touch towards Alzheimer’s patients can help them relax and emotionally connect with others, massage therapy during pregnancy has been shown to reduce prenatal depression, hug therapy is used as a calming treatment by many occupational therapists, and it has even been shown that NBA teammates who touch each other with a fist bump or pat on the back more often during games improve performance individually and as a team, resulting in more wins, more often³.
Unfortunately, touch is not always available to everyone and going without this basic human need can have a pretty big impact on our emotional health. New studies are showing that self-soothing touch or self-hugging can be employed to alleviate that deficiency⁴. For instance, placing your right hand over your heart, with your left hand on your stomach, while focusing on your breath can alleviate stress and help relieve pain. Feelings of comfort and security should ensue, improving mood and self-compassion.
Touch deprivation can also be relieved with massage therapy, pet therapy, and wrapping yourself in a blanket type hug. Pipermoon blankets ideally hug you back when wrapped snugly in our breathable, 4-way stretch, jersey knit relaxing the nervous system. It is officially known by occupational therapists as Deep Pressure Stimulation (DPS) and is used to help calm patients on the autism spectrum and/or with sensory processing disorders. This gentle pressure allows our bodies to switch from running on its sympathetic nervous system to its parasympathetic nervous system, or in other words from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest”.
With all the physical and emotional benefits of touch, compassion is only natural. Compassion towards ourselves and as a means of connecting and empathizing with our fellow humankind. Best said by Michelangelo, “To touch can be to give life⁵.”
Seaworld. “All About the Gorilla - Behavior | SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.” at SeaWorld.org, https://seaworld.org/animals/all-about/gorilla/behavior/. Accessed 15 June 2022.
Penn Medicine. “Creating Comfort Through Cuddling.” Penn Medicine, 29 March 2018, https://www.pennmedicine.org/news/internal-newsletters/system-news/2018/april/creating-comfort-through-cuddling. Accessed 15 June 2022.
Forer, Ben. “Winning Touch: NBA Teams that Touch the Most Win the Most, Study Says.” ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/Health/winning-touch-nba-teams-touch-win-study/story?id=13801567. Accessed 15 June 2022.
Healthline. “Hugging Self: Benefits, How to Do It, and More.” Healthline, 16 June 2020, https://www.healthline.com/health/hugging-self#how-to. Accessed 15 June 2022.
Keltner, Dacher, et al. “Hands On Research: The Science of Touch.” Greater Good Science Center, 29 September 2010, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hands_on_research. Accessed 15 June 2022.