Platonic, affectionate touch – holding hands, hugging, snuggling, and cuddling – is critical to living a healthy and happy life.  This is just as true for babies and adolescents as it is for seniors and other adults.

Babies and Infants

Researchers have demonstrated that infants who do not receive platonic, affectionate touch often fail to thrive leading them to grow much more slowly than their peers and suffer permanent negative effects on their mental development. [1]  Babies who do not receive enough snuggles, are at a much greater risk for physical illnesses as well as mental illnesses and eating disorders.  In the most extreme cases, they can die from a lack of affectionate touch.  On the other hand, studies have shown that babies who were affectionately touched, snuggled, and massaged for only fifteen minutes a day, developed more rapidly than their peers both immediately and in the longer term.

Children and Teenagers

What is true in babies has also been found to be true in people at other stages of life. [2]  For example, the presence of affectionate touch, like hugs and cuddles, in the lives of children 7-10 years old, has been shown to make them kinder than their peers and also assists in them in having a healthier relationship with their own bodies. Similarly, affectionate touch have been shown to assist with children’s ability to sleep and to maintain stable moods.  It has been a factor in reducing hyperactivity and helps kids with ADD and ADHD attain better results in school.  The same results have been found to occur among adolescents.  Conversely, those who receive less platonic, affectionate touch are consistently shown to be more physically violent and aggressive with their peers.

Seniors

On the other end of the spectrum, the need for platonic, affectionate touch amongst Seniors is also well documented.[3]  Touch has been shown to assist seniors with sleeping and producing enhanced feelings of well-being.  It also lowers blood pressure, decreases pain, decreases emotional duress and anxiety, and reduces agitation amongst those experiencing alzheimers.  It loosens tight muscles, assists with blood and lymph circulation, and stimulates the nervous, digestive, and respiratory systems.  Platonic, affectionate touch has also been shown to build hope and reassurance, communicate caring, overcome loneliness, assist with clear thinking and increase an orientation to reality amongst those suffering from dementia.

Young Adults and Middle-Aged Adults

What is true of babies and infants, children and teenagers, and seniors is also true of other adults.  If we experience platonic, affectionate touch, we will be healthier and happier than if we do not.[4]  Therapeutic touch, like snuggling, has been shown to be beneficial for adults with anxiety, depression, pain, arthritis, high blood pressure, and difficulty sleeping.  It has also been shown to assist with cancer treatment, boost the immune system, aid Veterans struggling with PTSD and alcoholism, reduce chronic pain, and facilitate faster recovery from surgeries.  It can produce adults who are less anxious, more relaxed, have a changed perception of pain, respond better to crises or distress, and have an improved sense of well-being.  Touch, when it is good touch that is platonic, and affectionate, can change all of us and make us healthier and happier.

Why Don’t We Touch?

Snuggling is a form of therapeutic touch that promotes relaxation.[5]  When you are relaxed, your brain releases endorphins that help muscles to relax.  When muscles relax, circulation is improved and the increased blood flow elevates oxygen levels through the body.  This in turn, allows nutrients to be absorbed more efficiently.  It helps builds enzymes that aid digestion, helps regulates hormones, and expels toxins from the body.  This allows healthy cells to regenerate and promotes a sense of well-being – boosting our production and release of dopamine and serotonin – which, in turn, supports healing and the proper regulation of the immune system.  All of this counters the negatives impact that stress, anxiety, depression, and simply being too busy, has upon our hearts, minds, and bodies.  All of these things can produce symptoms as diverse as headaches to gastrointestinal problems to difficulty sleeping and the improper functioning of our immune system.  Snuggling has been shown to have the ability to make a difference in all these areas.

Additionally, a good many people are suffering from loneliness and a sense of isolation.  Prolonged loneliness can lead to a loss of a sense of self-worth and feeling as though one is not truly human, or a member of the broader community, as if one is somehow worthless, unloveable, and untouchable.  Few things are as effective as platonic, affectionate touch in breaking through this dark cloud of loneliness that can build up around people.  A hug, an affectionate embrace, restores us to fellowship with others and helps us to know – in our bodies, if not in our minds – that we are valuable, touchable, and loveable.

What happens when we touch? The Science of Affection

How and how often people touch each other varies a great deal from culture to culture.  Canada, the United States, and England are some of the most touch deprived cultures in the world.[6]  For example, in one study researchers observed how frequently people around the world touched their friends when talking with them.  Over the course of an hour, friends were observed touching one another in a platonic affectionate manner 180 times in Puerto Rico, 110 times in Paris, 2 times in the USA, and 0 times in London, England (Canadian patterns likely fall in between those of the USA and the UK).

In Canada, babies tend to be touched much less than elsewhere and children are also at higher risk for corporal physical punishment.  This leads to insecure attachments with care providers, which can have both short and long term effects upon a person’s health and well-being.  Insecure attachments can result in people having trouble feeling valuable or forming reciprocally supportive relationships as adults.  This also leads people to distrust touch or associate it with violence, thereby reinforcing a cycle of withdrawal that leads to further touch deprivation.  This, in turn, leads to further ill health outcomes which leads to further withdrawal and so on.

Consequently, within our context, touch tends to be expressed through violence – as men only tend to touch other men through sports or some kind of roughhousing and are taught from an early age to “not be a baby,” and avoid gentle touch or expressing the need for affectionate touch – or it is highly sexualized and either avoided or distrusted.

A significant factor in this was the rise of a beliefs that (a) either people are heterosexual or homosexual; and (b) being homosexual is bad (NB: we at London Snuggle Therapy do not believe either of these things and see human sexuality as a continuum embracing a multitude of positions, and we do not believe heterosexuality is any better than other forms of sexual expression, performance or identity).  This shift took place about 100 years ago and had significant consequences for touching.  A great deal of the affectionate touch that existed between friends and family members disappeared.[7]  As a result, violent touching has increased and touching has become intensely sexualized.  What is the end result of this?  Further withdrawal from one another and a greater degree of touch deprivation.

Men experience touch isolation with other men due to homophobia and with people of other genders due to the fear of being perceived of as a creep.[8]  They also come to distrust themselves in moments when touch takes place.  As a result, men, and teenage boys, end up putting the burden for all affectionate touch into one exclusive relationship with the people they date – which can be a very large burden for just one person to carry, along with everything else that comes with a relationship.

Similarly, although more physical touch is socially acceptable between female friends, women also experience touch isolation because men seem to translate all physical touch as an invitation to sex and out of fear of cultural stigmas that label women who are touched as “easy” or as tainted.  Furthermore, physical contact between female friends tends to be highly sexualized by male observers in public spaces (think of male reactions to two female friends holding hands or dancing together at a club) and so it tends to be relegated to private spaces.

Trans* people remain some of the most touch deprived of all given current cultural conceptions and stigmas around what is or is not natural, beautiful, normal, desirable, and healthy.  Others, like those who are differently-abled or disabled, as well as those whose body types do not conform to cultural conceptions of what is beautiful, desirable, or sexy, are also familiar with this kind of experience.

We at London Snuggle Therapy see this as a tragic loss in our way of being in relationship with one another and believe that we would all be healthier and happier, and the world would be a better place, if we felt safe physically sharing our affection in a platonic manner with one another whenever and wherever we desire.  A world with more snuggles is a better world.  If we snuggled more, we would be healthier, happier, and kinder people.  It is from this belief that London Snuggle Therapy was founded.

 

 

[1] For the material that follows regarding babies and infants, cf. The Experience of Touch Research Points To A Critical Role; The Effect of Human Contact on Newborn Babies; Enhancing Development Through the Sense of Touch; How Orphanages Kill Babies– and Why No Child Under 5 Should Be in One ; Research at TRI.

[2] For material on children and teenagers, cf.
ADHD and Massage Therapy for Children; Helping Children Find Focus ; Research at TRI.

[3] For material regarding seniors, cf. The Importance of Touch When Caring for the Elderly; What Are the Benefits of Massage for Senior Citizens?; What Touch Really Means to the Elderly ; The elderly require a “special touch”: touching expresses caring, and the quality of care improves.

[4] See this excellent article on the use of touch within more traditional forms o psychotherapy: To Touch Or Not To Touch; Therapeutic Touch Ontario; Healing Touch Program FAQ; Need for Touch.

[5] See here for what follows in this section.

[6] For this and what follows see Ofer Zur’s Essay, To Touch or Not to Touch.

[7] See John Ibsen’s fascinating photo essay, Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) for a detailed exploration of this.

[8] Cf. The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer  and Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men Of Touch.