Cuddling and massage: why touch (usually) is good for us – love and family

Corona has shown it: without physical contact, we are missing something. Literally. Because we need physical closeness to be healthy and happy. Experts explain why.

You do it when you haven’t seen someone for a long time. When you want to console someone. Or if you just want to show by the bed that you’re there. Whether it’s a warm hug, a caress on the arm or by the hand, a touch is worth a thousand words. From the first moment to the last moment in life.

Even babies in the womb are taught by nature: “Something that touches my body and is both warm and soft is good for my body,” says Professor Martin Grunwald. The author (“Homo Hapticus”) and psychologist is the founder of the Haptic Laboratory at the University of Leipzig Medical School, and has been researching for years why we can’t live without the sense of touch.

The root lies in evolutionary biology: according to Grunwald, the processes of growth and maturation are almost directly related to physical contact. Nature ensures that humans as “nest living mammals” can thrive only if they live in a social community. with the corresponding consequences.
“We need these tactile stimuli for life, in early childhood this is really existential,” says the expert. He is convinced: “It does not matter whether it is an infant or an adult: the lack of human closeness leaves deep emotional grooves that can even lead to death in childhood.”

Feel good messages through the skin

There is no other sensory channel through which people can transmit positive emotional messages to each other so quickly and unambiguously. The spectrum ranges from affection, tolerance, and joy to appreciation, praise and recognition.

Even the smallest distortions and the slightest temperature changes in the skin have an effect on our brain. “It’s not just a minute-long massage that alters neurobiological activity,” Grunwald says. Even small touch stimuli that only last a few seconds have been shown to affect our mental processes.

Because the fact that it makes me feel good when someone hugs me or cuddles me – and vice versa – is not just a feeling, but actually measurable. Such as oxytocin in the blood and saliva. The so-called “bonding hormone” ensures that less of the stress hormone cortisol is secreted in the adrenal cortex. The heartbeat slows down, blood pressure drops, the muscles relax. In short, you feel good.

hugging without coercion

“But it’s not just about the purely psychological effects,” says biological psychologist Professor Sebastian Ochlenburg, who specializes in research on hugs. Studies have shown that such touches also have positive effects on health. “People who hug a lot are less likely to catch colds.” Because the immune system is highly affected by stress factors.

However, not every touch is automatically seen as a positive thing. Certainly not by traumatized people. Oklenburg even noted a certain kind of “hugging exhaustion”: from someone you don’t feel much sympathy for, this gesture is somewhat uncomfortable. The same is true, for example, if you are hugging the new friend of an acquaintance you barely know “out of social compulsion”.
“It always depends,” says the lecturer from Hamburg Medical School. Saying that everyone should hug each other more is undifferentiated to him. “You have to make sure they are the right people.” However, if the need for a hug is not satisfied, loneliness is higher and life satisfaction is lower.

Longer is better

By the way, hugs were not invented by humans. In social primates, they existed long before human existence. “Monkeys hanging in trees have a special form of face hugging,” Ochlenburg says. For primates, physical contact is an important form of expressing their sense of social connectedness – thus also strengthening the social group and securing the food supply.

Of course, physical contact – like penguins – also warms each other. But how much touch does a person need to feel warm inside? This largely depends on your personality, whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, and on your individual needs. As well as from the relationship. “The closer the person is, the stronger the biological reaction to touch stimuli,” says Martin Grunwald.

Hugging researcher Sebastian Ochlenburg reports that longer hugs release more bonding hormones. A “medium hug” lasts only three seconds. “Ten seconds is a long time!” Grunwald recommends five hugs a day for couples “so that their relationship lasts as long as possible.”

Animals or healers are good too

Those who live alone or have no close friends or relatives can visit so-called cuddle parties (not to be confused with sex parties) or cuddle therapists. “The masseur may have to work a little longer before the same mechanisms kick in,” Grunwald says. However, the relaxation begins. “It’s ancient and impressive biochemistry that is triggered by touch.”
By the way: soft blankets or stuffed animals cannot have this effect. “Something has to be alive for you to feel alive and it helps tremendously,” says the touch expert. Even stroking a pet works. “The same biochemical mechanisms happen there,” Grunwald says. And another plus on the cuddly blanket: “If you raise your dog, two creatures benefit.”

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