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Touch is vital for connection to self and others
Here you will find guidance on how you can deliver emotionally enriching and nurturing experiences involving positive touch and physical contact. Scroll down to read about the benefits of touch.
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People need to touch and to be touched
Touch is essential for survival and critical for emotional wellbeing. It can powerfully influence our emotions and when experienced positively it can have reassuring, soothing, calming, pleasurable and stimulating effects.
Touch has an important role to play in connecting with ourselves, the world and other people. It is the first sense to come ‘on-line’ in development and continues to be a most fundamental and essential form of communication throughout life. Very often we can communicate through touch what is not possible to convey through words.
Research shows that positive touch can:
- Increase happiness and psychological resilience
- Lower stress and ease anxiety
- Reduce feelings of loneliness
- Reduce symptoms of depression
- Lower blood pressure and boost immune function
- Increase levels of ‘feel good’ hormones and decrease stress hormones
- Provide pain relief by increasing the hormones oxytocin and serotonin
- Increase self-esteem
- Orient us to our environment and connect us to others
- Increase body-awareness
- Increase trust in others
- Improve sleep
Touch provides its own language of compassion, a language that is essential to what it means to be human.
To me, the science of touch convincingly suggests that we’re wired to - we need to - connect with other people on a basic physical level. To deny that is to deprive ourselves of some of life’s greatest joys and deepest comforts.
Everyday forms of touch can bring us greater emotional balance and better health
Social touch has been shown to be important for emotional, social and physical wellbeing. Touch can be in form of light touch or firm or deep pressure and may include hugging, high- fiving, shaking hands, holding hands, patting and stroking. The lightest form of touch has been referred as ‘affective touch’ because it activates parts of the brain associated with positive emotions. However, some people find light touch too ‘tickly’ and prefer firmer forms of touch.
Studies have shown that people with severe and profound intellectual disabilities can miss out on social, positive, affective physical contact and receive more functional touch, for example that occurs in personal care and in manual handling or when guiding a person from place to place. Increasing opportunities for positive touch and improving the quality of touch experiences may therefore have the potential to improve wellbeing.
However, some people may have experienced touch in a negative way, be hypersensitive (over sensitive) to touch or find some sensations unpleasant, while others may be hyposensitive (under sensitive) and consequently crave and seek out touch experiences. Whilst it has been widely argued that touch is essential for the wellbeing of almost all humans, taking account of a person’s individual needs and preferences is crucial to providing positive touch experiences.
The accounts of people who have physical disabilities have suggested that being in a wheelchair can be a barrier to receiving social touch and highlight how this can contribute to feelings of isolation. For example, Melanie Reid reported that:
The more I dwell on it, the more I become aware of the intense physical isolation that comes with living life in a wheelchair. Oh, you get lots of hugs, but they are brief, fluttery weedy affairs, your visitor bending over, only their arms and shoulders momentarily touching yours.
Like diet and exercise, you need a steady, daily dose of hugging.
Touch sets into action a cascade of physiological and biochemical wellbeing effects throughout the nervous system
Touch stimulates pressure receptors underneath the skin. These send signals along nerves that connect to neurons in the spinal cord and then to the thalamus, which relays information to the rest of the brain. Signals are translated into a touch perception in a part of the brain called the somatosensory cortex. When the touch pressure receptors are stimulated, vagal nervous system activity increases and this in turn decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) and increases serotonin (the body’s natural antidepressant and anti-pain chemical) and decreases substances that cause the perception of pain.
Touch is also important for developing proprioception, which is our sense of where our body is in space. Through touch experiences we can effectively develop a ‘map our body’ which allows us to perceive our body and the sensations that arise. If you have ever walked barefoot on the sand or the grass, you may have noticed that you became more aware of and attentive to the soles of your feet. It is the touch receptors in your feet sensing stimulation from the prickly grass or the smooth sand that triggered this perception. Some people with severe and profound intellectual disabilities may have physical limitations to engaging in touch experiences and increasing opportunities for touch can help to support improved proprioception and development of sense of self.
For example, if a person has limited functional movement in their hands they may have limited experience of using their hands and therefore have little awareness of their hands, that their hands are connected to the rest of their body. Experiences involving touching the hands, such as hand massage, may help to ‘wake up’ the parts of the body being touched, improve body awareness and sensation and perception of this part of the body. As well as the emotional wellbeing benefits this brings, such experiences may help with the ability to carry out functional tasks such as holding a cup.
Touch serves as a sensory scaffold on which we come to perceive our own bodies and our sense of self.
Bremner and Spence