Touch deprivation is not as simple as the absence of touch, it has a crucial impact on the overall well-being of the person.
Touch is essential for our mental, emotional and physical health. Based on experiments done in various settings, touch deprivation is known to have severe impacts on all primates including monkeys, apes, humans, etc. Humans and all other creatures include touch in their day-to-day lives. A simple handshake, a warm hug, keeping a hand on friends’ shoulders, a pat on the back or even a high-five is more than just an action.
Touch is wired into our brains as a need. It is a craving for all primates, irrespective of age, gender, physical structure or their stage of physical evolution.
Touch deprivation is the condition that arises when one does not get enough physical contact. This makes the person crave touch, and skin-to-skin contact when they are deprived of it for some reason. It is also known as skin hunger or touch starvation.
How Does The Body Sense Touch?
It has been found that there are a set of nerve receptors in the bodies of mammals that respond to any non-painful stimulation such as touch. These nerve receptors are ‘C tactile afferents‘ (CT Neurons). The C tactile afferents are group C nerve fibres, one of the three classes of nerve fibres that are part of the Central Nervous System and Peripheral Nervous System. Åke Vallbo used the technique of microneurography to discover CT Afferents.
Microneurography is a method of visualizing and recording the traffic of nerve impulses conducted in peripheral nerves of humans(in an awake state). Using this neurophysiological method, several functional properties of neural systems, such as sensing the touch, pain or muscle sense which controls the constriction (narrowing) of blood vessels in the body.
The research was done on animals as well as humans. The CT Afferents were found to have a role in pain modulation(reduction of pain and increase in pain) in the body depending upon the context of touch/stimulus. Also, these CT Afferents have a role in the feeling of pleasantness in the body. They were most responsive during slow gentle stroking of the skin.
Effects Of Touch Starvation
The largest organ in our body is the skin. It is the skin that sends good and bad touch sensations to the brain. Physical touch, skin-to-skin contact and sensory stimulation are important for emotional stability and good physical health too. The absence of touch or touch deprivation in a body can lead to a feeling of stress and uneasiness.
Good touch and sensory stimulations such as a hug, and a handshake make the brain release a hormone called Oxytocin. This neurotransmitter is also associated with empathy, trust and building relationships. It is sometimes also referred to as the love hormone.
Good sensory touch is very crucial in the early stages of life – stages of infancy and childhood. However, touch deprivation for any reason can have the below effects:
- High blood pressure
- Higher heart rate than normal
- Body image issues
- More prone to aggression and physical violence
- Eating disorders
- Bad gut and digestive issues
- Feeling of loneliness/ detachment as an adult.
- Sexual dysfunction or asexuality
- Bad sleep patterns
- Mental health problems such as depression, PTSD, among others
Getting Good Touch And Not All Touch
Touch or any sensory stimulation has always been linked with trust and a feeling of belonging. Not all touch is a good touch. Research shows that it is mandatory to receive touch or physical stimulation only in secure environments for it to be helpful. The positive impacts of good touch are reduction in high blood pressure, and heart rate, and reduction in aggression as an adult due to the increase of dopamine and serotonin.
Notably, we can get a good touch in the following ways:
- Good communication with friends: Shaking hands, a warm hug and a pat on the forehead can be received from different friendship circles. Research shows that even a simple thing such as holding hands for a longer time can help to reduce stress and touch deprivation.
- Expressing Needs To A Partner/Spouse: It is essential for touch-deprived humans to speak about their feelings to their partners and introduce more physical touch and good sensory stimulation in the relationship.
- Professional Massage Therapy: Tiffany Field, Director of Touch Research Institute, did extensive research on alternative therapies such as massage therapy for various medical and psychological conditions. The results included enhancing the growth of preterm infants, reduction of depression and attentional disorders as well as increasing the immune function in chronic patients.
- Engaging In Gardening: Gardening is a very simple way to explore more sensory touch in the case of people who don’t want to be touched by humans.