During this pandemic, one statement has been reiterated: Maintain social distancing. Now that human touch has been taken from us so abruptly, people have started to notice the yearn to give and receive it. Affective touch is crucial for our mental health. In a period in which so many things have promoted its decline, we need it more than ever and yet, we cannot have it. What are our attitudes towards touch? What happens when we cannot receive it? And what can we do about it? The Touch test gives some insights into these questions.

The Touch Test

The Touch Test results were released last 6th of October. A new global study from BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind programme and Wellcome Collection. Almost 40,000 people from 112 different countries participated in the largest study on touch, which ran from the 21st January to the 30th of March. People from the sample chose to participate and the test consisted of an online questionnaire developed by the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London and the University of Greenwich. In a context of a pandemic, in which human touch has been brought to a minimum, these results seem to appear at the best moment.

What does this study have to say about human touch? It is not surprising to see that within the sample, 72% of them had a positive attitude towards it. The study was conducted before the lockdown, and already back then, almost half of the people considered that society doesn’t allow us to touch enough! The main reason people gave for this deficit was the need for consent. However, 88% of people liked public demonstrations of affection by their partners and the three most common words associated with human touch were comforting, warm and love.

The power of a hug

A hug from a friend in a stressful day can bring us from a tense state to a more soothing one. Touch connects people, and the effects of this simple act of endearment are not to be overlooked! Research shows that touch is associated with less anxiety, reduced pain, fewer depressive symptoms, reduction of stress hormones like cortisol and a better immune response. The more hugs you get, the less likely you are to have a cold! Our blood pressure and our heart rate lower, and our brain gets a rewarding response were our oxytocin levels rise.

However, we don’t like being touched by just anyone! If we receive affective touch from a friend, we usually enjoy it. 79% from the sample from the Touch test said they liked it. But if it’s a stranger… 63% of people disliked it. Likewise, not everyone enjoys affective touch. The study also reveals that those who don’t, find it more difficult to build trust in their relationships. On the other hand, people who do, tend to be more extraverted, open to new experiences and agreeable; and most importantly, they have a greater wellbeing and feel less lonely.

When Covid-19 doesn’t let us touch each other

Why is it that every time someone tells us not to do something, we desperately want to do it? Annoying, right? And human touch is not an exception. Now that social distancing is so present in our day-to-day life, we are experiencing our need for touch with greater intensity. Not only because it reduces our stress and enhances our wellbeing, but also because it could be a good way of fighting against the mental health issues that have come as a side effect of this pandemic.

In a US survey conducted during lockdown by Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the Miami School of Medicine,  42% of people felt touch deprived in mid-April, and this number rose until 68% by the end of that same month. These results were correlated with feeling stressed and lonely. When we can’t hug others, we feel disconnected from them, and we can even feel anxious.

The lack of reward in our brains needs to be filled in some way, so we search for other behaviours that can lead to the same outcome, like food or exercise. Though stress eating is not a good habit, exercising can be a proper alternative to touch when it comes to getting that reward in our brains. And, indeed, as we have seen during these last months, exercise at home has been a common feature in many households.

Touch is much more important for our mental health than we might think. As social animals, we humans crave this kind of affection signs in our interactions with others. Now that we have been deprived from what we took for granted, we feel the need for it more than ever. Exercising is a good way to fight against this craving that cannot be satisfied, but nothing feels like the warmth of a good, long hug. So, if you live with other people, don’t doubt it one second and squeeze them!

Laura Bello
Laura Bello

Laura Bello is a Biomedical Scientist from Barcelona, Spain. She is currently studying a MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London. She is also the website officer of the GHNGN. She has collaborated with Cosciences, a scientific journalism association in which she wrote articles, did radio features and started the design of a scientific board game. She is now still collaborating with Cosciences and also with Principia magazine, a spanish magazine which combines science and humanities. She is passionate about science journalism, public engagement (especially citizen science) and about the relationship between science and society. Her main areas of interest are psychology, neuroscience, infectious diseases and global health.

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