Are you getting enough skin time with other people or do you dwell in isolation, deprived of direct human contact? Touch is one of our five basic needs, along with sight, hearing, smell, and taste. But studies show that one in four doesn’t get enough strokes, pats, caresses, and hugs.
Touching creates complex bonds between those making a soothing physical connection. Babies coo their pleasure and approval when they feel a reassuring hand and love to snuggle.
Let’s face it: we all love to snuggle, no matter how old we are. And we need it. Not getting enough physical contact can lead to a real medical condition called skin hunger or touch deprivation, affecting a person’s emotional, mental, and physical health and well-being.
Touching is a natural way animals express affection, acceptance, and approval and quite often there is nothing sexual about it. A friendly hug, pat on the back, or handshake (or fist bump) all feed our hunger for touch, as do sensual touching – holding hands, massage, back-scratching, and foot rubs, for example.
Researchers found that a specialized system of nerve fibers called C-Tactile afferents (CTs) underpins the rewarding sensation of touch. CTs, respond optimally to slowly moving, gentle touch, typical of a caress. They noted, “significantly greater activation of the zygomaticus major (smiling muscle) was seen specifically to CT optimal, 3cm/sec [1.18in/sec], stroking on the forearm in comparison to all other stimuli.”
Feeling pressured or stressed triggers the body to release a hormone called cortisol. When chronically elevated, cortisol can have negative effects on weight, immune function, and the risk of chronic disease. Touch releases the stress before the body gets worked up enough to secrete chemical bombs, as it were.
Heart rate and blood pressure drop from a calming touch by stimulating pressure receptors that carry signals to the vagus nerve to slow it down. This nerve is the longest cranial nerve, connecting the brain stem to part of the colon. The vagus nerve performs somatic (sensations felt on the skin or in the muscles) or visceral (sensations felt in the organs of the body) functions.
Normal childhood development depends on being touched. Both healthy neurochemical balances and the ability to form and keep positive emotional relationships have been linked to touch.
Psychologists have known about the importance of touch since a highly controversial experiment was conducted in the 1940s. Newborn infants were divided into two test groups. One group was put in a sterile facility, given food, bathed, and changed but otherwise received no human touch. The other group of babies were kept in the same life-preserving conditions but were also given affectionate touching.
Can you guess what happened? It’s no surprise that all of the babes in group 2 did just fine after four months of complete nursing that included stroking and patting by the researchers.
But the group 1 babies weren’t so lucky. After four months, almost half of the babies had died in sterile conditions, putting a halt to the experiment. Oddly enough, the babies were completely healthy physically and doctors found no physiological causes for their deaths.
Understanding that babies will die from skin hunger puts the matter into a whole new perspective. If you don’t get hugs on a regular basis, you might have some of the following symptoms that can indicate the debilitating condition:
- Aggressive behavior
- Body image issues
- High-stress levels
- Sexual dysfunction
- Fear of emotional attachment
- Low relationship satisfaction
Juan Mann documented his Free Hugs Campaign which has been promoting the end to skin hunger since 2006 by going forth and offering supportive embraces to strangers on the street. Mann was living in London, England, when personal troubles forced him to return to native Sidney, Australia. He got there only to find “No one to welcome me back, no place to call home. I was a tourist in my hometown.”
With only a carry-on bag full of clothes to his name, Mann made a sign with huge capital letters:
The lonely Mann found “the busiest pedestrian intersection in the city and held that sign aloft.” At first, no one took him up on his offer. But then, after 15 minutes, he felt a tap on his shoulder. A woman needed a hug because her dog had died that morning – and it was also the first-year anniversary of her only daughter’s death from a car accident. Mann remembered the feeling that launched his Free Hugs healing movement:
“I got down on one knee, we put our arms around each other, and when we parted, she was smiling.”
Local police weren’t smiling, however, and forced Mann and his compatriots to shutter their upbuilding operation. Undaunted, Mann collected the 10,000 signatures needed to amend the law and allow everyone – including first responders – to give and receive a good old hug.
I just love a story with a happy ending. Don’t you?