Though my passport is full of stamps, I am the coward of all fliers. For years, every trip involved an herbal sedative, followed by half a sleeping pill as soon as I boarded and half a glass of wine an hour later to nudge things along. The worst flight of my life was a 90-minute ride in a rickety, about-to-fall-out-of-the-sky plane in South Africa. As I sat in my turbulence-rattled seat and cried, sure that we were going to die, a stranger saw me, came over, and said I could hold her hand until I felt better. She probably didn't think that would be for the entire flight, but I couldn't let go. Her soft skin and firm grip left me feeling more at ease than I'd ever been on a plane. Now, amazingly, all it takes to keep me calm on flights is remembering her touch. No more sleeping pills.
This woman was not a trained healer; how could a stranger cure me of a lifelong fear? Doctors and researchers have been uncovering that answer more and more in recent years. Tactile sensation, from massage to a pat on the back to hugs, can help premature babies gain weight, accelerate recovery from illness, and calm us when we are afraid. One study showed that students are more likely to enjoy the library and return if the librarian touches the back of their hand when they check out a book. Even more surprising, new research suggests that touch doesn't necessarily discriminate between people and objects. That means a total stranger as well as a warm bathrobe could make you feel better.
There's a reason for that: Your skin is your body's largest organ, and when its sensory receptors are stimulated, the hormone oxytocin — the one that makes you feel good — is released. At the same time, cortisol, the stress hormone, is reduced.
In a world where so much of our interaction is virtual — Facebook, e-mails, texts — physical contact is more precious than ever. Read on to learn more about the science behind a sweet embrace, and for the real reader stories that touched us most.
Researchers are studying everything from hugs to high fives. "Touch is a much more sophisticated system than we ever realized," says Matthew J. Hertenstein, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at DePauw University. Here's how it can impact your life
It Can Make You Healthier
Sure, a back rub delivers a pick-me-up when you're feeling under the weather. But it can also boost your immune system and get you back on your feet sooner, according to research done by Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. And a 2004 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that sharing a love seat with a partner for 10 minutes lowered blood pressure in premenopausal women. That study also concluded that women have reduced heart rates when they get lots of hugs. But hugs don't have to be from a romantic partner. Various other studies have shown that touch helps asthma, eases migraines, and leads to a more restful night's sleep.
It Can Make You Smarter and Less Stressed
Researchers at the University of Miami had people do a difficult math problem, then had them do it again after receiving a chair massage. Post-massage, subjects showed increased speed and accuracy in solving the problems as well as more pleasure in the task, thanks to the reduction of stress. Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, discovered that athletes who frequently give each other a high five or a "good job!" pat during games do better in team sports than the ones who don't physically interact. While the flying chest bumps that pro athletes share are probably not part of your work environment, you can practice what Keltner calls "smart touch: encouraging pats on the back, friendly handshakes, and playful fist bumps."
It Shifts Your Worldview
Scientists are discovering that you don't have to touch another person to receive a sensory lift. Next time you're feeling low, cradle a steaming mug of coffee or tea in your hands. If you're like most of us, it will put you in a more generous mood; a 2008 Yale study by social psychologist John Bargh, Ph.D., showed that people tend to think more warmly of others if they're holding something warm. You could also warm up your mood by booking a massage, getting a shampoo at a salon, or meeting a friend for lunch and giving her a big hug.
It Can Deepen Your Relationships
"One of the key places we can use touch is in our families," says Hertenstein. "A lot of fathers are reluctant to hug their sons for fear of how they will be perceived. But touch increases bonding with those around us. I give my 5-year-old son a two- or three-minute back rub each night as I tell him a story." Touch may mean more to men than they let on: A 2011 study by the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction polled more than 1,000 men and their female partners in five countries about the power of touch and found that for men between the ages of 40 and 70, regular cuddling was more important than sex. The more men hugged and kissed, the happier they considered their relationships. "The most important thing is to have a frequent dose [of touch]," says Field. "Like diet and exercise, if you don't have it daily, the effects will go away."
"The Touch That Changed My Life"
"When I was a little girl, my dad held my hand whenever we crossed the street. When I became a 'big girl,' with my own five children, he still insisted on doing it. That gesture was always a source of comfort and love for me. He passed away in 1995, and I still miss crossing the street with him."
— Melody Vestuto, Elmhurst, IL
"Three years ago, my daughter passed away unexpectedly. Returning to work and facing people was very difficult for me. Most of my coworkers didn't know what to say or do, so they just ignored the situation, with the exception of two men. They would walk into my office (I'm sure one didn't know the other was doing this) and, without saying a word, come over and hug me.
This went on occasionally for several months. It brought me to tears every time it happened, but it made my heart feel a little less pained."
— Julie Wells, Nicholasville, KY
"When my husband was recovering from surgery, my children couldn't hug their dad. We had the kids squeeze his hand and called them 'hand hugs.' "
— Kathy Willhite, Scotts, MI
"I was in an airport, fretting over a missed flight, when I saw a lone soldier walking in the hall. He was still in his desert BDUs and looked unhappy.
I hugged and thanked him for his service to our country. He told me, 'I came home from Afghanistan a dayearlier than planned and wasbummed that no family mem-bers were here to meet me. You've made me feel so muchbetter.' My mood had lifted, too."
— Theresa Lacey, Fairhope, AL
"I used to get the most extraordinary scalp massages at my hair salon. This guy's fingers were magical! They eased my tensions from head to toe. I was going through a relationship breakup and the death of a parent, and I found his touch extremely consoling. I'd feel comforted for days just thinking of it."
— Julia Chance, Baltimore
"Sometimes, after my husband's gone to bed, I sit at my computer, relishing the solitude as I do my work. But the moment I crawl into bed and slide into the crook of my husband's arm, the aloneness falls away.
His gently warming body tethers me, keeps me feeling together and safe and understood — without the slightest awareness on his part."
— Tanya Simon, Dobbs Ferry, NY
"Once, when I was single, I was at church and our minister said, 'Now, when you share the peace, if you feel comfortable, really reach out and hug somebody. There are people sitting in this church who have not been touched all week.' And I was 27, looking at all the elderly people and thinking, Oh, poor, lonely old people. Then I realized that he was talking about me — no one had so much as shaken my hand all week."
— Veronica Chambers, Hoboken, NJ
"I was an Army brat, and we moved so often that making friends was hard, so I cherished the visits from my great-grandmother. Her hands were wonderful — tanned, gnarled, and arthritic. She loved working in the garden and kneading dough. She'd rub my back and hum oftly until I fell asleep."
— Michele Frazier, San Marcos, TX
"My newborn daughter refused to sleep. At 4:19 A.M., after I'd been up with her all night, my lips began to quiver, my eyes began to sting, and I didn't know what to do.
Then she rested her head on my chest, close enough to hear my heart. Close enough for me to smell her little head. That small shift, that touch, was enough to remind me that I could do this."
— Kenrya Naasel, Cleveland