Adults, especially in the United States, can be a little standoffish about touching other people. We reserve it for intimacy, schedule it, or avoid it all together. This is a shame really, since touch is a big part of humanity and has been with us from the beginning. Touch is the first language we learn after all.
Before we understand a single word, we understand and recognize contact with others. A baby can distinguish a mother’s arms wrapped around it from a stranger. Children explore their world with their hands, fingers, and mouth before they begin to trust their eyes and ears. They understand that a gentle touch can offer comfort, a soft nudge can direct them away from harm, or a tender squeeze can draw their attention to something fascinating. These lessons remain with us, even when we grow to ignore or deny them as adults.
Nonverbal communication is highly studied in psychology, focusing on how we read and convey information with facial expressions, body language, and non-word sounds. Only recently has touch been added to the list, but scientists are discovering that we lean on our first language more than we thought. Every embrace, quick hug, high-five, smack, fist bump, or caress conveys powerful emotions and ideas.
Awareness and Emotional Wellness
It is healthy to be aware of how our touch affects others and what our touch tells about ourselves. We should also work on using this skill more often. Babies who are rarely touched have smaller brains than those who are held. These babies simply fail to develop the spatial awareness they should early on and they wind up less emotionally healthy too. People can as easily convey emotions through touch to a blindfolded individual as through gestures to someone who can see, meaning touch moves beyond language barriers. Touch also deepens bonds between friends, family, and lovers.
But there are even more benefits to touch, healing benefits. Hugs actually lower blood pressure and slow heart rate. Embraces and gentle touch can also release oxytocin. This hormone is often referred to as the “love hormone,” but it also promotes growth, speeds healing, and lowers stress hormones in the body. Touch dissolves anxiety and stress, even between strangers. Massage has been shown to boost alertness while relieving some of the symptoms of stress, chronic fatigue, and depression.
Smarts and Focus
A massage before a test boosts scores. A pat on the back for a good job boosts brain power, productivity, and the chances that person will volunteer to do more in the future. Sports players instinctively know this, offering high fives, chest bumps, and even bum pats that may look silly to an outsider, but they improve performance, inspire, and create a well-bonded team. Small, seemingly insignificant touches from a salesperson or waiter can increase the amount of sales and tips they receive. Touch is more powerful than we think.
Your skin is your largest organ, a sensory perceptive organ that runs the length of your body in all directions. Use it to your advantage. Snuggle up to a soft, warm blanket, cradle a cup of warm tea in your hands, rub against that plush bathrobe, or let the steam of a big bowl of tomato soup roll over your face as you inhale deeply. These non-human touches can still help you feel better, improve mood, vanquish fatigue, lower blood pressure, kick out depression, and even release oxytocin. This is why people have comfort blankies, clothes, foods, and routines, but nothing beats the human connection.
Connect with someone today. Break through some of the taboos you have created and give a stranger who looks down a hug. High five people on the bus or subway. Put your hand on a coworker’s arm and tell them they’re good at their job and you’re proud to work with them. Hold your loved ones close. You could be extending their lives, making them smarter, and easing their stress and anxiety away with every touch.