Healing hands: how touch can benefit your health

Mental Health

Benefits of Human Touch: What is the impact on our health?

Can a little human touch bring about health benefits? We find out.

Karen Burge
August 2019

Whether it’s a warm hug on a cold day, a hand squeeze when your nerves run high or a pat on the back for a job well done, a little human touch can go a long way in making us feel good.

Touch can convey a whole range of emotions – reassurance, empathy, comfort, love, compassion and sadness. And we can identify different emotions through touch as effectively as we do via facial cues, says clinical psychologist Amanda Gordon.

It’s a sense that makes us feel connected physically and emotionally and boosts our wellbeing. Research shows it can benefit our overall health too.

How does human touch work?

‘There are various chemicals that are stimulated by physical touch, both in the giver and receiver – the feel-good chemical oxytocin is one of those chemicals,’ Gordon explains. ‘We have receptors in our skin that go to the brain.’

When touch is given appropriately, the benefits affect everyone from newborns and new mums to the elderly and isolated.

Newborn development: Skin-to-skin contact

We know for babies, skin-to-skin contact is essential for physical and psychological development. Research published in the journal Biological Psychiatry shows the benefits of human touch as a newborn are measurable even 10 years after birth.

In this study, 73 premature babies were given maternal skin-to-skin contact and were compared to 73 babies who received incubator care. After repeated testing, from aged 6 months to 10 years, those in the skin-to-skin group were found to have greater cognitive skills. At 10 years of age, these children also had better sleep patterns, physical responses to stress, more advanced autonomic nervous systems and better cognitive control.

Gordon says the release of oxytocin triggered by touch is an important chemical for mums as well as newborns. It has been shown that parent/child infant massages lifted low moods in new mums with postnatal depression and helped them connect with their babies. 

Healing hugs for health and wellbeing

Regular hugs can also have a big impact on our health and wellbeing. One study showed frequent hugs between partners were associated with lower blood pressure and heart rates, and higher oxytocin levels in premenopausal women. The study also found those who hugged more often enjoyed better physical and psychological health, improved relationships and were better able to handle conflict.

Bonding through human touch

The benefits of human touch extend to making us feel more connected and socially accepted too. In one study, a group of NBA basketball players actually did better when they performed bonding gestures, such as back-slapping, bumping chests and exchanging high-fives on court. Researchers say this demonstrates the power of touch in communicating cooperation and trust.

Soothing and lowering stress

Experts know that touch can soothe and lower stress in babies, a rub on the back can lull children to sleep, hugs can make kids feel safe and accepted, and hand-holding can help in times of distress. This soothing effect has also been shown to help in aged-care settings.

Gordon points to one study in which people with dementia were given dolls to hold and stroke, to help soothe their agitation.

‘I would assume touch is playing that role, because there are receptors in the skin of our hands for [those] who give as well as receive,’ she says.

‘Older people who are isolated, have been widowed or lost their partner, run the risk of being deprived of touch, and I’m sure that’s connected with a level of depression and anxiety.’

Gordon also reminds us of the benefits of touch when someone is at the end of life. ‘We are drawn to taking their hand and holding it, stroking it, and we know that, even though they may not appear receptive, it is likely to give some good to the receiver as well as the give.’

How to get your dose of human touch

If you don’t have access to regular hugs, there are other ways to get its feel-good benefits:

  • patting a furry friend has been found to release “happy hormones” oxytocin and serotonin
  • make the most of small gestures of connectedness with friends, teammates and people you come across in daily life
  • massage therapy is a great way to unwind. 

If you feel disconnected and are lacking human touch, reach out to a professional, such as a GP you can refer you to a psychologist, to talk through your feelings. If you require urgent mental health support and emotional assistance, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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