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Mallory Creveling

Updated: 12/07/2022

In the age of COVID, being separated from loved ones can rob us of a basic need for our health and happiness.

As a psychologist who focuses on the mind-body connection in her practice, Renee A. Exelbert, PhD, knows how powerful the sense of touch can be.

That’s why, when her mother contracted COVID-19 at a rehabilitation facility where she was recovering from a diabetes complication, Exelbert was devastated that she couldn’t hold her hand or give her a hug. “The first time I saw my mom before she went into the [isolated] COVID unit, the aid in her room was completely garbed in personal protective equipment,” she says. “To see my mother treated that way, that someone had to be protected from her, was so heartbreaking.”

Exelbert and her siblings sent their mom posters with pictures and hand-written messages from the grandkids. They also gave her a CD of her favorite music. Eventually, as she began to recover, they were able to have a FaceTime session with her.

For a patient, no matter the illness, seeing family or knowing that they are around can be a form of medicine, Exelbert says. “I know how important touch and communication is — it can literally change someone’s capacity for hope.”

The Benefits of Touch

From the day we’re born, humans are innately attuned to the sense of touch. Research shows that skin-to-skin contact between a mother and a newborn baby provides a multitude of benefits for both baby and parent. The baby may experience enhanced nutrient absorption, better body temperature maintenance, improved brain development, less pain and more, while the contact may help the mother have a more positive breastfeeding experience, lower her risk of postpartum depression and reduce stress. Studiesshow that fathers, too, can reap mental health benefits of skin-on-skin contact following birth.

Kate Ramey, CRNP, a neonatal intensive care unit nurse practitioner in Pittsburg, has seen this science in action: “Nurses have always understood the magic of skin-to-skin contact between parent and baby,” she says. Ramey and her fellow nurses encourage this intimate touch as soon as possible after birth and multiple times throughout the days following.

The benefits of touch last far beyond childbirth, too. Throughout our lives, a whole range of physiological and biochemical reactions happen when you touch another person, or someone touches you — particularly when it moves the skin, says Tiffany M. Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. “When you do that, you’re stimulating pressure receptors and those receptors send neurons that go to the vagus nerve,” she explains.

One of 12 cranial nerves (those that start in the brain), the vagus nerve helps slow down the central nervous system, putting your body in more of a resting state, which helps lower the stress hormone cortisol, says Field. It can also increase natural “killer cells,” which can strengthen the immune system.

Something else happens when another person touches you: Your levels of serotonin — a neurotransmitter that basically acts as the body’s natural antidepressant and pain reliever — increase, says Field, who has studied this touch response and published her findings.

In addition to lowering cortisol and boosting serotonin, touch can also increase the hormone known as oxytocin, or the love hormone. “It’s a bonding hormone — it has to do with our sense of trust and attachment,” says Jena Lee, MD, director of the Pediatric Consultation Liaison and Pediatric Emergency Psychiatry and clinical instructor at UCLA. “It’s the hormone released when moms breastfeed; it builds that bond and helps you feel really attached and safe.” In adults, oxytocin can help people feel secure in relationships and better handle stress, and research says it plays an important role in the early stages of romantic relationships.

The Medicinal Effect of Touch

The cortisol-lowering effect that a hug, massage or other form of touch can have on someone who is sick can also offer healing effects. “Cortisol, when up, increases blood pressure, heart rate, and inflammation — it can make healing harder, physically,” Lee says. “But when you decrease cortisol, heart rate can go down, blood pressure can go down, and the immune system is more able to do its function.”

Oxytocin can also aid healing in the sense that it can help you feel like you’re not alone, like you’re socially connected, which helps to improve psychological healing, explains Lee. “When you’re psychologically healthy and anchored, that’s really important in dealing with a major illness.”

One review underscores how the benefits of touch likely come from a mix of both a mental reaction (that feeling of inclusion and support) and a physical one (the increase in oxytocin and pain-relieving substances, both of which downregulate the stress response). Another study found that healing touch therapy and massage helped relieve pain in cancer patients.

Science shows that people are able to communicate a wider range of emotions through touch than through words.

Lee also notes that many times, in a hospital setting especially, people can often be at a loss of words, literally. “It’s interesting because some science experiments show that people are able to communicate a wider range of emotions through touch than through words,” she says.

By simply touching a friend’s arm or putting your hand on a family member’s back, you can relay a message of empathy, care and kindness. This can be powerful for both mental and physical reasons, because when we feel physically connected, we also usually feel less anxious, Lee says.

A case can even be made that touch can improve success. One study from 2010 published in the journal Emotion found that NBA teams with player who had more physical interaction (think fist bumps, high fives, hugs and team huddles), experienced better performance outcomes as teams and as individuals. 

What Can We Do When We Can’t Touch?

When physical isn't an option, reminding someone of the support they have through sound and sight can help, as Exelbert did for her mom. There’s not as much evidence to support the benefits of voice, though some studies have explored the possibilities. For example, one study looked at a mother’s voice and its effect on her child, finding that it could still raise oxytocin levels.

Other research pinpoints the importance of a family’s voice in helping their loved one pull through a coma. (For an inspiring story about a man who was on a ventilator for over 30 days and responded to the voices of his wife and kids, read this.)

"Being descriptive and vulnerable can be very powerful in communicating the same messages of touch."

“At this time of physical distancing, when touch is limited, we’re being forced to be more intentional about our word choice,” says Lee. Instead of holding your grandma’s hand when she’s sick or alone, you might write a letter or set up a video chat. "Being descriptive and vulnerable can be very powerful in communicating the same messages of touch," Lee notes.

If you're the one who needs more physical touch in your life, Field says self-massage (say, with a foam roller) will initiate those pressure receptors that help to slow your nervous system and make you feel relaxed — at least until we can reconnect in real life, hopefully sometime soon.

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