As we move into a post-COVID world, we are experiencing burnout with our computer screens and Zoom. Is there anyone who is still eager to take another video meeting? As amazing as modern technology is, there are good reasons why virtual communications feel so taxing and unfulfilling. An aspect of face-to-face interactions that is impossible to replicate through a computer screen is touch. Whether through a friend holding our hand or mom’s affectionate hug, we need physical stimulation to our skin. When was the last time someone held you while in a social setting? Perhaps a quick fist bump or slap-on-the-back-style hug while saying hello or goodbye?
Even before the pandemic, Americans had adopted a culture of non-touch, especially amongst men. Men don’t hold hands, don’t play with each other’s hair, don’t caress one another’s faces, or sit on each other’s laps. There is a dearth of physical connection amongst all Americans, but particularly those who are male-identified. Researcher Sidney Jourard did a study in the 1960s where he counted how many times companions sitting at a café would reach out and conversationally touch each other. When doing his observations in France and Puerto Rico, he observed that they would touch each other one-hundred and ten times and one-hundred and eighty times, respectively. In the United States and Great Britain, by comparison, dining companions would only reach out for touch twice and zero times, again respectively.1 This lack of physical connection is keeping us lonely and emotionally distant from one another—and also from our own selves.
Allowing yourself to be the recipient of platonic touch provides both psychological and physiological benefits. Researchers Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney found that rats with mothers that groomed them regularly as infants grew up to be calmer, more resilient to stress, and possessed measurably heartier immune systems.2 Studying humans, Tiffany Field observed that prenatal newborns that were held for fifteen-minute increments, three times per day, gained forty-seven percent more weight than the premature infants receiving standard medical protocol during their first week of life.2 Touch brings us into our bodies and strengthens our connection to life.
When I was younger, I feared touch. I would keep my limbs to myself and shrink back—as if I were undeserving—when someone approached me with a hug. I remember watching my peers put their arms around one another or lean into each other—and, while it seemed appealing, I felt unworthy to partake. I sensed that I was dangerous, unlovable. My buried fears regarding my sexual identity made me wonder if someone touching my skin would be able to feel the tissue-paper-like façade I had constructed. I was a piñata-man: cardboard skin hiding a hollow interior. I didn’t want them to realize that I was fake.
It took until my mid-twenties for me to start exploring physical forms of affection—even platonically. Touch initially felt forbidden and strange. Over time, however, it eventually became a healing salve for me. I soaked in the physical gestures of kindness like a dry sponge, letting the sensations soothe decades of self-loathing and feelings of insufficiency. A tight embrace, a pat on the arm, a squeeze of a hand taught me that I was worthy, that I was seen, and that I was valued. Touch helped to reconnect me with my body.
Virtual communications do not provide the same benefit. Yes, we can hear verbal affirmations from our peers—but we cannot sense the pulsing biological mechanisms behind their words. When we feel another’s pulse increase as they tell us they love us, when we feel the firm grip of a hand on our shoulder as we are being comforted, we proprioceptively sense the truth in their intent. We gain understanding not just through the logic of language but through our sense organs. The value of touch cannot be underrated.
It is also important to mention that for this in-person connection to provide a lasting benefit, both parties have to feel like they gain something from the experience. Studies show that transactional interactions—like paying a massage therapist, fitness coach, psychological therapist, or sex-worker for their skills—don’t stimulate the same neural pathways as when everyone involved believes that they’ve benefited.3 That’s not to say that one-way relationships don’t have value (I have certainly enjoyed many wonderful massage-therapy sessions), it’s just that we need to cultivate relationships that work both ways. We need to feel like we are improving someone else’s life through our connection, not just our own. We are hardwired for altruism. When relationships are entirely one-sided, it will leave us feeling less validated.
According to psychologist Miriam Akhtar, “Tactile stimulation can trigger oxytocin, the love hormone. It also lowers cortisol levels, reducing anxiety and stress. Touch has been shown to alleviate depression, improve immune function, reduce pain, enhance attentiveness, decrease blood pressure and calm the heart rate. It speeds recovery times from illness and surgery, aids digestion and boosts survival rates of patients with complex diseases.”4
When I was younger and would go for a professional massage, I almost couldn’t feel it when the therapist would start to work on any area below my diaphragm—I was that disassociated from my lower half. It was almost like the masseur’s hands would vanish when they got down to my hips, knees, or feet. It took a long time for me to accept and welcome healing touch. As we permit physical interaction to enter our lives, we give ourselves permission to sink back into our skin. We start to inhabit the marvelous machines that we call bodies.
(This essay is adapted from an excerpt of the book: Journey to the Ecstatic Self: A Workbook for Settling Into your Skin, Cultivating Authenticity, and Reconnecting with your Radiant Self with permission from the publisher.)
- Dutton, J., Johnson, A., & Hickson, M. (2017). Touch Revisited: Observations and Methodological Recommendations. Journal of Mass Communication & Journalism, 07(05). doi:10.4172/2165-7912.1000348
- Keltner, D. (n.d.). Hands On Research: The Science of Touch. Retrieved July 11, 2020, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hands_on_research
- Hari, J. (2019). Lost connections: Why you’re depressed and how to find hope. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
- Tierney, R. (2018, April 11). The power of touch. Retrieved July 11, 2020, from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/beauty/skin/youthful-vitality/the-power-of-touch/