Anxiety and Depression  |  Self-Care

Starved For Touch

BY SHANE TAN

25 September 2021  |   6 min read

Touch, one of the first human senses to develop in the mother’s womb, is essential to our development and our physical and mental well-being. It can even be life-saving — new research released earlier this year shows that kangaroo mother care, which involves skin-to-skin contact and exclusive breastfeeding, significantly increases a premature or low-birthweight baby’s chance of survival.

“Early infancy is one of the critical periods of development, requiring parental presence and stimulation by touch. The deprivation of parents and touch can therefore lead to adverse physical, developmental and psychological outcomes in both the child and parents,” explains Dr Yip Wai Yan, a Consultant with the Department of Neonatology at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH).

Kangaroo mother care is beneficial for behavioural and physiological responses and regulation in both preterm and full-term babies after a painful procedure, according to the Canadian Association of Paediatric Health Centres.

Psychologically, touch is associated with better regulation of an infant’s biological response to stress. In particular, skin-to-skin care between a mother and infant regulates stress, anxiety and psychological distress of both a mother and infant. Skin-to-skin contact has been shown to raise oxytocin hormone levels in parents and infants, which can lift low moods in new mothers with postnatal depression and help them connect with their babies.

Touch can have long-lasting effects on a child’s development — one study found that premature babies who were given maternal skin-to-skin contact were found to have better sleep patterns and physical responses to stress, more advanced autonomic nervous systems, and better cognitive control compared to babies who received incubator care.

“This is important, as frequent or chronic stress in developing infants is linked to physical and mental health issues,” Dr Yip points out.

KKH and Temasek Foundation are exploring a programme that trains senior volunteers to provide therapeutic touch by holding, comforting, talking and singing to vulnerable babies in neonatal wards, supervised by nursing staff.

Touch in Adulthood

As adults, touch is no less important to our physical and mental health. Everyday touch was one of the first things that the COVID-19 pandemic robbed from our lives. Even before social distancing, masks, and stay-at-home orders became the new normal, we were warned against touching our faces and others.

But human touch is a powerful form of nonverbal communication and social connection. Whether it’s a reassuring touch on the arm or a warm hug, physical contact is a big way of how human beings show concern, affection and connect with each other.

During the pandemic, loved ones have had to find inventive ways to embrace each other. In a video that went viral last year, a Canadian family took turns using a “hug glove” comprising a thick plastic sheet with two pairs of “sleeves” to hug one another without direct skin contact.

Touch Deprivation

The absence of physical contact can develop into touch deprivation at some point, as Dr Tiffany Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, said in The New York Times.

When we are stressed, our body’s “flight-or-fight” response is triggered, and our bodies release cortisol as a response. This can increase heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and muscle tension, as well as suppress the digestive system and immune system, leading to an increased risk of infection.

Whether it’s a reassuring touch on the arm or a warm hug, physical contact is a big way of how human beings show concern, affection and connect with each other.

Dr Field argued that positive touch helps to reduce cortisol, a stress hormone that can harm immune response, whereas touch deprivation exacerbates depression and weakens the immune system. Indeed, hugging can help our bodies fight off infections, as one study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University has revealed. The researchers found that “those who receive more hugs are somewhat protected from infection and illness-related symptoms”, and “physical contact with a close other [reduces] the effects of stress on biological markers thought to be precursors of disease.”

She also observed that touch can calm us down by reducing heart rate and blood pressure. As an article by the Texas Medical Center points out: “When we hug or feel a friendly touch on our skin, our brains release oxytocin, a neuropeptide involved in increasing positive, feel-good sensations of trust, emotional bonding and social connection, while decreasing fear and anxiety responses in the brain at the same time.”

Feeling Good

Dr Field’s research has found massage therapy to be one of the most effective forms of touch to alleviate pain, decrease depression, and enhance immune function. But not everyone can get access to a massage therapist. So what other ways you can prevent touch starvation?

  • While weighted blankets will never be able to replace real human touch, they mimic the sensation of receiving a hug and deep pressure touch, the kind of touch that has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress.
  • Petting or interacting with an animal has been shown to decrease cortisol and lower blood pressure. Animals can even reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood.
  • Video-chatting can reduce feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
  • Try practising self-massage to ease touch starvation. For example, people can massage their neck to try to stimulate the vagus nerve, which may help reduce stress.
  • Exercise and physical activity such as yoga which gets you in touch with your own body can be beneficial. It can help to improve cognitive function and well-being, as well as reduce feelings of stress and depression.

If you feel disconnected and are lacking human touch, reach out to a professional or a trusted confidante to talk through your feelings. If you require urgent mental health support and emotional assistance, call/visit:

  • IMH (24-hour Helpline) – Tel: 6389 2222
  • Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) 24-hour suicide prevention hotline – Tel: 1-767
  • My Mental Health website – I Need Support Now

The contributor is a Singaporean writer and journalist based in New York. Shane’s work has appeared in Esquire Singapore, Salon.com, Surface magazine, Yahoo! News, and Marie France Asia. Find Shane on Twitter at @itsShaneTan.