The value of physical touch and how it makes us happier
“I need a hug.”
“Kiss it and make it better.”
“Just hold me.”
We have probably all heard all of the phrases above. They are examples of asking for physical touch to feel better. Even the innocent phrase of a child ‘kiss it and make it better’ reflects how physical contact can make things, quite simply, feel better.
When I say physical touch here, I mean a gentle, caring touch that is comfortable for the recipient. In The Oxytocin Factor, a book published in 2003, author Kerstin Moberg explains that physical touch has a similar effect to an actual injection of oxytocin (pp. 110 – 112, preview found on google books here)1. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical in the brain, associated with love, trust, and feeling good2.
Studies have shown that massage can help cancer patients with their symptoms of pain and depression. In a 2009 studyresearchers found that breast cancer patients who were given regular massage felt better and didn’t get upset as much as a control group who did not receive the massage3, and a 2015 meta-analysis of multiple studies found that massage treatment helped cancer patients manage pain4.
While the studies mentioned specifically refer to cancer patients, evidence such as that drawn from The Oxytocin Factor as mentioned above indicates that we can potentially generalize this information, and that it may have an application in other facets of life. What I believe is that regular, if possible daily, physical touch will help make you feel better and be happier. Below is are my suggestions for how to add some physical contact to your life, if it is not already part of it.
How to add physical contact to your life
The best way to do this will be with a good friend, but if you do not have one close by, an open-minded acquaintance may do just as well. There are several different forms of casual physical contact common in our society. We will pick one or two of these and suggest it to our friend. The simplest is a hug. We want our hug to be 30 seconds to a minute long, if possible – though any hug is better than none.
1. Ask your friend, ‘Hey, I could really use a hug – is it okay if I hug you for a long time, like 30 seconds or a minute?’
2. If your friend says yes, just hug. Let yourself breathe and relax into the hug. Don’t squeeze too tight – you don’t want to suffocate your friend because that will make future hugs less likely.
Another simple form of contact is a shoulder massage. We would like to shoot for 5 – 10 minutes of gentle shoulder massage, but even a minute is good. If you don’t feel comfortable with a shoulder massage, you could also keep it to just a hand or forearm massage.
1. Ask your friend ‘Would you like to exchange shoulder massages? Maybe for about 5 minutes each?’
2. If your friend says yes, give a simple, gentle shoulder massage. For this, we want to be relaxed and not put too much pressure – you don’t want your hands to get tired, or to hurt your friend.
One more possiblity is to simply sit back-to-back and try to feel each other breathing. If you can match your breaths to be at the same rate, even better. Again, 5 – 10 minutes is ideal, though even 1 minutes is helpful.
1. Sit back to back as comfortably as possible. Sitting cross-legged on the floor works well for some people, or putting two chairs next to each other can also work.
2. Keep your back as straight as possible while staying relaxed – try not to hold yourself too rigid.
3. You can talk or joke or read or just focus on breathing – the most important is to do your best to simply maintain that contact.
Besides the suggestions above, you can also look into the two websites http://cuddlist.com/ and http://www.cuddleparty.com/
These websites are a means to find a safe environment to experience a positive, non-sexual touch.
These are my personal suggestions – Do you think any of these forms of physical touch would fit into your life? Is there some other way of having a positive contact that would work better for you?
1. Moberg, K. U. (2003) The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping The Hormone Of Calm, Love, And Healing Pinter and Martin, London, UK.
2. Wikipedia.org – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxytocin
3. Listing, M., Reißhauer, A., Krohn, M., Voigt, B., Tjahono, G., Becker, J., Klapp, B. F. and Rauchfuß, M. (2009), Massage therapy reduces physical discomfort and improves mood disturbances in women with breast cancer. Psycho-Oncology, 18: 1290–1299. doi:10.1002/pon.1508
4. Lee, S. H., Kim, J. Y., Yeo, S., Kim, S. H., Lim, S. (2015) Meta-Analysis of Massage Therapy on Cancer Pain. Integrative Cancer Therapies 14 (4): 297-304.