Importance of Touch
Recently, an alum came to visit campus whom I hadn’t seen for a long while. My instinct was to open my arms and move toward her, but instead we both took a step back and awkwardly waved at each other. It was frustrating to not be able to wrap my arms around her. It is equally frustrating and awkward to meet someone for the first time and not shake their hand. It is heartbreaking to have an emotional exchange with someone who is in tears and not be able to put an arm around them. A foot-bump or prayer bow communicates warmth and connection, but they also lack something fundamental to human interaction.
Simple touch can signal safety, support a feeling of affection, and increase a sense of trust. A hug, pat on the shoulder, the holding of a hand can activate the vagus nerve, trigger the release of oxytocin, and calm the cardiovascular system.
“From the time we are in the womb through our elderly years, touch plays a primary role in our development and physical and mental well-being.”
According to the science of touch research (Greater Good, Nov. 2018), “From the time we are in the womb through our elderly years, touch plays a primary role in our development and physical and mental well-being. New studies on touch continue to show the importance of physical contact in early development, communication, personal relationships, and fighting disease.”
Studies over the past few decades have ranked the United States as relatively low on physical contact. Likewise, according to some research, there is an ongoing steady decrease in physical touch correlated with the increase of daily technology use. Add to this concern a pandemic, which insists on physical distancing, and some of us might feel what scientists call “touch starved.”
Recent observations of our on-campus community has sharpened my awareness of this concern. Ensuring that students and staff are physically distanced is a critical piece of our mitigation effort against the transmission of COVID-19. It is also a confirmation of our ability to adapt quickly to new ways of being together. However, I can’t help but wonder how this lack of simple touch is impacting the wellness of our students and of our community as a whole.
Not being able to rely on affectionate touch as we have in the past, our children might need a few extra hugs each day from those within their bubbles at home, as might we.