Monday, April 09, 2018

Non-sexual Physical Touch: Just Do It!

When I was in my early twenties, I didn't like giving hugs to anyone but family and guys I was dating. That might not seem strange to a lot of Americans, but in the deep South, that just didn't fly. Southerners hug everyone.

I also didn't like sharing a bed with my sister because she's like a snake and will basically tightly wrap herself around anyone, so that it's nigh impossible to get her off. As a teenager, I would kick her during the night, if she snuggled up to me.

Boy, have I come a long way in the last 15 years. In fact, I just came home from a 90-minute massage. Who'd have thought that 90 minutes of physical touch would almost put me to sleep? (Honestly, I was afraid I was starting to drool.) Gone are the days of shying away from hugs and snuggles. Now, I welcome them. This is thanks in large part to my old friend Taylor. (I've blogged about him before; see What's In a Hug?)

So what, besides Taylor, changed things for me? Well, I can tell you that as a single person, I am starved of good ol' non-sexual touch. As a single person who lives alone, I'm even more starved of it. I often go days without a hug, and it can be weeks and weeks before someone pats me on the back or the arm or flicks my ponytail. Even just bumping into someone can be nice because physical touch is so rare.

What I've learned from this is that science is right: Touch is critical to socioemotional and physical well-being. We've long known that babies who are deprived of touch become developmentally delayed, but we are also learning that touch decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol (the "stress hormone" that causes weight gain, slow healing, and decreased libido, to name a few symptoms) and increases oxytocin (the "love hormone" involved in sexual arousal, recognition, trust, and mother-infant bonding). We are learning that touch does so much more than just make people feel good––it makes people healthy! Late last year, The New York Times published a great article on touch that I think should be required reading for every person on the planet, especially parents: The Power of Touch, Especially for Men. In it, the author reviews the biological benefits of touch, but he also digs into the perhaps causal relationship between the lack of platonic touch among American men and particularly high levels of stress:
"If this cowboy approach strengthened men mentally and emotionally, it wouldn’t be a problem. But the weight of having to suppress stress and the resulting emotions that are perceived as unmanly — “gender role stress,” Dr. Zur calls it — doesn’t make men more resilient. It makes them more vulnerable, triggering anxiety and depression, he says. It also prevents them from feeling that they have permission to seek mental health help. A 2000 study by U.C.L.A. researchers finds that “Men are more likely than women to respond to stressful experiences by developing certain stress-related disorders,” such as hypertension, alcohol and drug abuse."

So. What is my point, you ask? It's that platonic touch is, again, critical to socioemotional and physical wellbeing. Let's all start being a little softer, a little gentler. Hug your children as much as you can, and pat them on the back often. Don't assume that just because your kids drive you crazy, they wouldn't be welcome to crawl all over a single or elderly person. Let those people hold your babies and let them walk with your kids hand in hand. Hold your spouse's hand and cuddle while you watch a movie. And hug! Hug as many people as you can, as often as you can.

There's just no substitute for physical touch. It's so important. Make it a part of your life.

Thing I'm thankful for: free/low-cost academic articles


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