From the moment we are born, physical touch is most important to an infant’s physical and mental wellbeing.
Throughout our development as humans, the benefits of maintaining healthy safe contact with others continues to have important advantages for our overall health as well as our relationships.
According to Alisha Mecene, psychotherapist and founder of Emotional Wellness Boutique, physical touch is a form of non-verbal communication called Haptic Communication.
“Touch is considered the most intricate and intimate of our five senses,” she shares. “Influencing its application in mindfulness practices, which tap into using the five senses to promote self-regulation, research on touch convincingly suggests that it can be advantageous to our physical health, mental health, and interpersonal relationships.”
One of the biggest advantages of touch is its importance to human connection and how the stages of human development coupled with societal norms sees us communicate with others through physical contact.
“The importance of touch in relation to human connection becomes noticeable, from the moment a baby is born,” she notes.
“If you’ve witnessed this awe-inspiring occasion first-hand, you may notice an instinctual and perhaps primal urge, in most cases, for the parents and family members to automatically hold, kiss, cuddle, and nurture the child, often through skin-to-skin contact,” explains Mrs Mecene.
“As we move through the stages of human development, the need for bonding through touch continues, often guided by societal norms. From hugging a classmate in preschool, to tightly wrapping one’s arms around their first crush, to shaking hands to close a hopeful job interview, many long for touch.
“As we look cross-culturally, touch is universal. Whether bumping noses in Qatar, shaking hands in Rwanda, rubbing foreheads in New Zealand, or bumping fists in Bermuda. Touch can reflect one’s family of origin, tying us to our community.”
While on the surface we are potentially forming close bonds with other humans, deep inside our bodies, our brains are releasing oxytocin – the pleasure or ‘love’ hormone, Mrs Mecene points out.
“Oxytocin can influence both our behaviours and emotions,” she explains. “Some experts even claim that it can help us to be more generous, caring, empathetic, communicative, attached, and trusting in our relationships with others. Research also indicates that when partners exchange warm daily touching, it can decrease symptoms of stress among both individuals. Studies also highlight that touch can strengthen feelings of love and attraction within our relationships, again, thanks to the production of oxytocin.”
Prioritizing safe physical touch and working ways into our wellness routines can come in many forms, and along with the positive benefits to reduce the feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety, it’s a great way to form bonds with those closest to us.
Mrs Mecene suggests establishing habits, which can include ideas such as kissing your partner in the morning, hugging a family member, cuddling your child, taking up partnered dancing or spending time snuggling with a pet.
Adding certain therapies into your routine, such as massage, physical therapy, cupping, acupuncture, heat and cold therapies and hydrotherapy, can all provide physical rewards.
“When touch takes on forms such as massage or therapeutic touch, it can also be employed to usher in moments of relaxation and escape from our daily stressors,” says Mrs Mecene.
Beauty treatments ranging from massages to facials to pedicures are all an important part of our wellness routine and just like exercise and eating a balanced diet can have long term benefits on our health, says Caroline Bartlett, beauty therapist and owner of Feel Good Studio, an oasis of calm in the heart of the City of Hamilton.
“Even in just 30 minutes, a therapist can find that pain and help a client find rebalance. When the client leaves they feel taller and reenergised. Suddenly they feel they have more energy and vitality. This frees up the nerves to the brain and increases blood flow to the brain, allowing us to think better if we’re under a lot of stress, and it’s sometimes nice to take out a short time each week to rebalance ourselves,” she says.
While massage has well-known benefits for recovery from injury it also has shown links to reducing anxiety and stress.
“Research has shown that massage can cut the body’s level of the stress hormone cortisol by 31 percent and increase happy hormones, including dopamine and serotonin by 30 percent,” explains Ms Bartlett.
It’s important to note that not everyone has the same positive reaction to touch and we must take into account that each of us sets personal boundaries when it comes to physical contact.
“Some individuals possess a triggering relationship with touch,” cites Mrs Mecene. “This aversion could be based on trauma, mental health conditions, developmental disorders, relational attachment challenges, tactile sensory avoidance, or those who simply don’t prefer touch for no identifiable reason.”
Before any treatment, inform the provider of any areas you may want to avoid being touched, suggests Mrs Mecene.
And from an early age, teaching our children about safe touch and most importantly that they don’t owe anyone physical touch, adds Mrs Mecene.
“We can promote safety by encouraging both minors and adults to trust their gut and say no if something doesn’t feel right. Even if they lack a specific explanation or it involves someone they feel closely connected to, no means no,” she says.
“Openly set boundaries and explicitly share what you enjoy and what you dislike. Also, reflect on ways you can respect the boundaries being set by others around you. If someone shares that they don’t like hugs, don’t take it personally or minimize their preference. Promote safe touch by modelling it within your relationships.”