That Loving Feeling: 9 Ways Touch Helps Us Thrive

Our retirement years may bring changes to our familiar inner circle, but our need for loving touch abides. While an intimate, long-term relationship fulfills that need for many, that isn’t the only way to reap the benefits of contact. Actions as simple as getting a massage, hugging a friend, or even stroking a pet can bestow a wealth of physical and psychological benefits. During February, the Month of Love, let’s consider 9 of them.

  1. Whether it’s a hug, a pat, or a cuddle, touch increases the amount of oxytocin – sometimes called the “feel good” hormone – coursing through our veins. And that, in turn, makes us more optimistic, more compassionate, and more likely to trust those around us.
  2. When it comes to the mechanisms that help us fall in love and stay in love, touching is tops. No surprise, then, that affectionate touch helps strengthen bonds with friends and loved ones, and increases cooperation.
  3. Physical touch also boosts levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which help regulate our mood and counteract anxiety and stress.
  4. Lest you think the relationship between love and our hearts is purely metaphorical, consider this: Holding hands has been shown to reduce blood pressure and slow the heart rate, perhaps reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  5. Affectionate touch is also a wonderful antidote to physical pain. While studies have long shown the benefits of massage for pain reduction, it now appears that even holding hands with a loved one can diminish painful sensations.
  6. Hugging helps cure the common cold! It’s true: As demonstrated by a 2014 study, greater perceived social support and more frequent hugging predicted less severe illness among healthy individuals exposed to respiratory viruses.
  7. Feeling blue? Get a massage. Studies have shown that massage provides a powerful counterpoint to depression. Even self-massage has it benefits, slowing the heart rate and lowering the level of the stress hormone cortisol.
  8. In the absence of touch, can talk suffice? Apparently not. In a series of studies from the Touch Research Institute, at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, one group of seniors enjoyed conversation-filled social visits; another group enjoyed conversation plus massage. Results confirmed that the second group displayed more emotional and cognitive benefits than the first.
  9. Maybe being a cat lady isn’t so crazy: Evidence suggests that – much like human touch — human-animal interactions increase the release oxytocin, thereby increasing feelings of trust, enhancing empathy, reducing aggression, improving pain management, and improving learning. Petting a cat (or a dog) also appears to lead to improved cardiovascular health.

Loving touch remains a basic need throughout our lives. On Valentine’s Day, an affectionate hug just might be the best gift you can give or receive.

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