Earlier this week I published a post titled “Everybody Struggles.” A friend of mine said she read it as “Everybody Needs a Snuggle.” I thought that was hilarious at first, but then I got to thinking, does everybody need a snuggle? It turns out that we do — being touched is essential to our mental and physical health.
We know that dogs like to be petted, and it turns out that all mammals respond positively to petting, rubbing, and stroking as well. A 2013 study at Cal Tech found petting triggers special neurons in the brain of mammals called MRGPRB4+. These neurons produce both a calming and pleasure response in the brain.
In addition to just feeling good, being touched by others is important to our overall health. A 2014 study out of Arizona State found that people who are deprived of touch from others suffer from “loneliness, depression, stress, alexithymia, and numbers of personality disorders, mood and anxiety disorders, and secondary immune disorders.” Further, being deprived of touch decreases “general health, happiness, social support, relationship satisfaction, and attachment security.”
Other studies have found that :
Aggressiveness: Kids that are touched more are less aggressive, both physically and verbally.
Immune System Benefits: Massage helps the body produce more natural killer cells — a frontline immune response. Additionally, people who were hugged more had a better immune response to the cold virus than those hugged less.
Relaxation Response: Holding hands, hugs, cuddles, and snuggles trigger the relaxation response — heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and the brain produces more theta waves.
Infant Growth: Babies in neonatal intensive care who received regular massages gained more weight and were discharged earlier.
Improved Performance Under Stress: Being hugged before performing a stressful activity like giving a speech or taking a test can improve performance.
Modern Challenges to Touching
Experts are concerned about reduced human touching in modern society. First of all, COVID has been an issue. Handshakes and hugs went away almost completely and have only sporadically returned (I remember how good it felt to hug friends and family after we all got vaccinated).
Additionally, the use of social media and smartphones have reduced how much we touch. Tiffany Field, who studies touch at the University of Miami notes, “I think social media has been really detrimental to touch. Being on your phone is distancing people physically from each other. It used to be in airports, you’d see people hugging and napping on each other. Now they’re just not touching.”
Touching occurs less often in schools because of no-touch school policies which prohibit teachers from touching students. And then on the playground kids are more often on their phones which results in less touching among students.
Call to Action: Touch is essential. Let’s put down our smartphones and give more hugs and back pats. Hold hands. Give more back rubs. And even snuggle (I like to be the little spoon).