It’s no secret that a pat on the back or a peck on the cheek can make you feel special. But experts now say that the right kind of touch can lower your blood pressure, improve your outlook, and even make you better at math. Here’s how to turn up the tactile in your life.
By Ayana Byrd
Though my passport is full of stamps, I am the coward of all fliers. For years, every trip involved an herbal sedative, followed by half a sleeping pill as soon as I boarded and half a glass of wine an hour later to nudge things along. The worst flight of my life was a 90-minute ride in a rickety, about-to-fall-out-of-the-sky plane in South Africa. As I sat in my turbulence-rattled seat and cried, sure that we were going to die, a stranger saw me, came over, and said I could hold her hand until I felt better. She probably didn’t think that would be for the entire flight, but I couldn’t let go. Her soft skin and firm grip left me feeling more at ease than I’d ever been on a plane. Now, amazingly, all it takes to keep me calm on flights is remembering her touch. No more sleeping pills.
This woman was not a trained healer; how could a stranger cure me of a lifelong fear? Doctors and researchers have been uncovering that answer more and more in recent years. Tactile sensation, from
massage to a pat on the back to hugs, can help premature babies gain weight, accelerate recovery from illness, and calm us when we are afraid. One study showed that students are more likely to enjoy the library and return if the librarian touches the back of their hand when they check out a book. Even more surprising, new research suggests that touch doesn’t necessarily discriminate between people and objects. That means a total stranger as well as a warm bathrobe could make you feel better.
There’s a reason for that: Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and when its sensory receptors are stimulated, the hormone oxytocin — the one that makes you feel good — is released. At the same time, cortisol, the stress hormone, is reduced.
In a world where so much of our interaction is virtual — Facebook, e-mails, texts — physical contact is more precious than ever. Read on to learn more about the science behind a sweet embrace, and for the real reader stories that touched us most.
Researchers are studying everything from hugs to high fives. “Touch is a much more sophisticated system than we ever realized,” says Matthew J. Hertenstein, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at DePauw University. Here’s how it can impact your life
It Can Make You Healthier
Sure, a back rub delivers a pick-me-up when you’re feeling under the weather. But it can also boost your immune system and get you back on your feet sooner, according to research done by Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. And a 2004 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that sharing a love seat with a partner for 10 minutes lowered blood pressure in premenopausal women. That study also concluded that women have reduced heart rates when they get lots of hugs. But hugs don’t have to be from a romantic partner. Various other studies have shown that touch helps asthma, eases migraines, and leads to a more restful night’s sleep.
It Can Make You Smarter and Less Stressed
Researchers at the University of Miami had people do a difficult math problem, then had them do it again after receiving a chair massage. Post-massage, subjects showed increased speed and accuracy in solving the problems as well as more pleasure in the task, thanks to the reduction of stress. Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, discovered that athletes who frequently give each other a high five or a “good job!” pat during games do better in team sports than the ones who don’t physically interact. While the flying chest bumps that pro athletes share are probably not part of your work environment, you can practice what Keltner calls “smart touch: encouraging pats on the back, friendly handshakes, and playful fist bumps.”
It Shifts Your Worldview
Scientists are discovering that you don’t have to touch another person to receive a sensory lift. Next time you’re feeling low, cradle a steaming mug of coffee or tea in your hands. If you’re like most of us, it will put you in a more generous mood; a 2008 Yale study by social psychologist John Bargh, Ph.D., showed that people tend to think more warmly of others if they’re holding something warm. You could also warm up your mood by booking a massage, getting a shampoo at a salon, or meeting a friend for lunch and giving her a big hug.
It Can Deepen Your Relationships
“One of the key places we can use touch is in our families,” says Hertenstein. “A lot of fathers are reluctant to hug their sons for fear of how they will be perceived. But touch increases bonding with those around us. I give my 5-year-old son a two- or three-minute back rub each night as I tell him a story.” Touch may mean more to men than they let on: A 2011 study by the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction polled more than 1,000 men and their female partners in five countries about the power of touch and found that for men between the ages of 40 and 70, regular cuddling was more important than sex. The more men hugged and kissed, the happier they considered their relationships. “The most important thing is to have a frequent dose [of touch],” says Field. “Like diet and exercise, if you don’t have it daily, the effects will go away.”
Read more: Power of Touch – Health Benefits of Touch – Good Housekeeping