Covid 19: Why do we miss touch so much?

In a conversation with my Mum the other day, she told me how much she’s looking forward to a big hug at the end of the Covid-19 outbreak. This got me thinking: why do we rely on touch so much as humans? What have we really been missing out on during this lockdown period where touch has been broadly banned?

In order to minimise the spread of the disease we have even been advised against self-touch: scratching your face, resting your chin on your hand and flicking your hair are all actions we repeat numerous times a day and are self-calming mechanisms required by our nervous systems to slow our heart rate and reduce cortisol levels.

As an osteopath I sometimes find it uncomfortable to think of the widespread and often unpredictable effects of touch. Somehow I find it easier to focus on the physical effects of relaxing muscle and encouraging joints to move than to accept that in touching my patients to achieve these aims, there is also an emotional transaction taking place. It somehow feels incongruous to accept that whilst adhering to the strict rules on professionalism and conduct laid out for osteopaths, we are still affecting the reward centres of the brain in a way that we can’t necessarily see or control and which will be different for every patient.

When I was in my penultimate year of my osteopathy degree at the University College of Osteopathy (formerly the British School of Osteopathy) we were asked to choose a dissertation subject. I met with my supervisor and explained that I wanted to do a randomized controlled trial investigating the outcomes of touch with intention and touch without intention. She looked at me like I was a complete idiot. We never really saw eye to eye but now I understand more about touch, I can see where she was coming from; there is no touch without intention.

The Science of Touch

Touch is our primary method of communicating compassion and it carries incredible emotional and physical health benefits. It’s important for human connection and bonding and is dispensed very differently between different cultures, with western cultures typically being deprived of social touch.

Touch can take many forms. Touch in the form of grooming and has been found to be important in establishing cooperative alliances and reciprocity between primates.

The effects of touch can also be measured physiologically. Jim Coan & Richard Davidson (2006) put female subjects in a fMRI machine and told them to expect a painful blast of white noise. In the control group, subjects experienced heightened activity in the parts of the brain associated with stress and threat. However, the group who received touch in the form of arm stroking from their romantic partner, didn’t experience this at all. Touch had turned off the threat.   


Physical and emotional development

Human touch has been found to be essential for human development. A study by Field et al (2010) investigating the benefits of touch in preterm newborns found the following to be true:

– the group of babies who received 15 minutes of touch, three times a day, gained 47% more weight than those who received standard medical treatment

Another study by Caldji et al (1998) found that rats whose mothers licked and groomed them lots when they were young, were calmer, more resilient to stress and had stronger immune systems than rats who were depriving of this contact.

This goes some way to explaining why historically, an overwhelming percentage of babies in orphanages deprived of touch failed to grow to the expected height and weight and were more likely to develop behavioural problems.


“Touch therapy”

Touch has been shown to be beneficial  for our entire physical and mental health. Several studies including one by Woods & Dimond (2002) have looked at the effects of touch in Alzheimer’s patients found that touch helped them to feel more relaxed, encouraged emotional connections and reduced depression in this population.

A study by Field (2010) observing the benefits of massage during labour found that massage greatly reduced pain during labour and labour was on average three hours shorter with a reduced need for medication. Field also reiterated positive findings from other studies:

  • Women who received massage therapy during pregnancy reported decreased depression, anxiety, and leg and back pain.

  • Depressed pregnant women given pregnancy massage experienced fewer prenatal complications.

  • There was a lower incidence of prematurity and low birthweight in the depressed women who received massage.

To conclude…

We all need touch for healthy development, to form and reinforce relationships and as a tool to communicate compassion. Touch can reduce our experience of pain and stress and even boost our mood! Of course, not all touch is healthy and non-consensual touch will have the direct opposite outcomes on physical and psychological well being with potentially long-lasting damaging effects.

I hope this blog goes some way to explaining why we’re all looking forward to having a nice hug from friends and family when the lock down is lifted! Stay well 😊

Further reading:

Sidney Jourard – Physical Contact and Self-disclosure