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The Health Benefits of Touch

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Tactile communication is essential to wellbeing. And it is a key contributor to how successful we are in work too.

The Process of Touch

Touch is first processed by the skin, sending neurochemical signals to the brain that makes us conscious of the touch. Importantly this is when we identify the intention of the physical contact – whether it is friendly, caring or harmful.

The Current Climate

Consider the elbow bump that originated during the pandemic – people created new ways to connect with each other in place of the usual hug or handshake. 

Touch is a fundamental human need and the right kind releases oxytocin, a neurochemical that promotes trust and co-operation. When our cortex identifies a gentle touch or one that conveys warmth such as a reassuring pat on the back, we feel valued.

Team Success

We see it too in sport when teams celebrate achievements, such as scoring a goal, through ritualised touch like high-5s, hugs or even bodies piling into each other! 

The touch may be brief, only lasting a couple of seconds, but research by Kraus and Keltner at the University of California found that the more a team’s players touched each other at the start of a season, the better the team played at the end. They were:

  • More efficient 

  • Helped each other out more

  • More successful at winning games. 

Alberto Gallace, neuroscientist at the University of Milano-Bicocca, also reports people perform better on tasks when clapped on the back beforehand – it’s form of reassurance.

Stress

Touch also reduces the neurophysiology of stress. Simply holding the hand of someone who is emotionally aroused can deactivate stress. 

As the vagus nerve recognises touch, the nervous system slows, the heart rate and blood pressure decrease, stress hormones such as cortisol reduce, and brain waves show relaxation (Tiffany Field, Touch Research Institute, University of Miami). Together with the release of oxytocin, we feel calmer, happier and more in control.

A Conscious Approach to Touch

The extent to which this simplest of actions makes a difference to our personal sense of wellbeing, our physical and mental health, and our success within teams, is now backed by science. 

Think about:

  • How much physical contact you have with family – is this something you achieve enough of, when our lives can get so busy that we may forget the simple things?

  • How you achieve physical contact with friends and what that looks like. We have to be mindful that different people feel comfortable with different ways of reaching out, but try to find a way that works, knowing that some form of touch has positive benefits.

  • How you physically connect with workmates. Whatever your view is on this, make it a conscious approach. Whether it’s a hand on the shoulder or a tap on the back, discuss what feels ok and reconnect as a team.

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