In this episode Sherry talks about the science of touch.  How it contributes to your mental well being and the well being of those around you. Also discussing the power of giving/receiving emotional comfort through touch.

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References:

Berkeley researcher Dacher Keltner on Touch

Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden on The Science of Touching and Feeling at TEDx

Episode Transcript

Sherry:Hey guys, I’m super excited to announce that I’m doing my first webinar. I am going to be talking with Corey Miller, who is the founder of Ithemes, and who was recently a guest on this podcast. I think episode 97. Corey is really interested in mental health. He talks openly about his own experiences of depression. He and I are going to lead an interactive discussion around the topics we talk often about on this podcast. About mental health wellness, how to stay connected to yourself, to your family members, and we are doing this on Tuesday, February 7 at noon central. We will put a link in the show notes for you to register for this free webinar.
 Another way to keep in touch with some of the things that Rob and I are doing right now, is to join the ZenFounder mailing list. We do not send a lot of email, I promise. It’s a great way to keep in touch with place that we’re speaking or different activities or events, like this webinar, that we might be involved in that you might be interested in checking out.

 

Sherry:So I’m alone today on the podcast. I confess, I did a little bit of click bait on this episode, because the topic that I want to talk about is touch. I’m a little bit nervous everyone is going to say, “Okay, she has totally gone too far. This is the epitome of touchy feely and we’re no longer interested and we’re no longer gonna listen.” But, I promise that some of the content that I’m gonna talk about in the podcast today is super incredibly important to your own mental health and well being, as well as to the mental health and wellbeing of people around you.
 So, please hang in there for my one sided conversation about the importance of touch as a wellness superpower. I started thinking about this over the last weekend. Those who listen to the podcast know that we are living in Minneapolis and it’s been cold and we’ve been inside a lot. Our youngest son, who’s six, was just really having a hard time with, I think, how little exercise he was getting and how little rough and tumble play he was getting. It’s been so cold they’ve kept the kids in at recess. So he’s been drawing at recess, which is fabulous, but this is a kid that needs to just move around.
 So, on Sunday, I spent probably 45 minutes, maybe an hour, just tickling him and wrestling with him and throwing him up in the air, and just doing this big body play that involved a lot of touch. Over the course of that playtime, I could just feel his little body calming down. Almost like he’d been carrying a lot of tension and this was exactly the kind of play and contact with me that he needed, in order to be able to settle back into himself and feel good again. As I was having this experience with our son, I started thinking about how often we, as grownups, especially as founders, just spend our whole lives in our heads. We spend time doing things, planning things, executing things, talking to people about things, and a lot of us don’t have a lot of embodied time and maybe don’t spend a lot of time really in close, physical contact with another person.
 Whether you are in a romantic relationship, whether or not you have children, it’s actually incredibly important that all of us get a certain amount of physical touch, physical contact with someone. This has been a very old story in psychology. We have known there’s really clear, indisputable evidence that touch is essential to the healthy development of a human. Tragically, much of the data about this came out of orphanages in Romania, where children were being appropriately cared for in that they had appropriate nutrients, but young babies were dying, sometimes at a rate of up to 70%. One of the things that made the most important change in their survival rate, was simply having caregivers come and hold them. Young children, especially, will not develop properly without a lot of physical contact. This experience of being held by an adult human.
 The role, the centrality, of touch, doesn’t go away when we grow up. It stays an essential part of our development. It continues to be an essential part of what makes us healthy and well. So to give a little bit of background to this, touch is the first of our senses to develop. Our skin is taking information in through the world. Our first experiences in life are those of being … Of physical contact, hopefully, with another person. It is out most fundamental means of contact with the external world. Just like if you walked around with your eyes blindfolded for a long time, the acuity of your eyes would decrease. Or if you blocked your ears for a long time, your ears would not function as well. The parts of your brain that connect the organ and the mechanics of your ear to sensation processing, would stop working. That can happen with touch as well.
 Our skin is taking in information all the time from the world around us. If that isn’t stimulated, then we can kinda lose some of the sensitivity that we have towards touch. This is actually a super bad thing. Beyond really, seriously impairing one’s sex life or one’s connection to small children, touch is social glue. It binds partners together, it binds families together, friends together. It is essential. There are several studies that show that touch is an essential queue that signals safety and trust. Touch is also essential in soothing. So when you think about soothing someone who’s very upset, you might think about putting your arm around them or rubbing their back or patting them on the back, or something like that.
 There’s almost always this instinctual drive towards physical contact when you’re trying to soothe or calm someone down. Receiving touch can calm cardiovascular stress. It makes the heart rate slow down, the respiration becomes more even and less stressed. Simple touch can activate the bodies veges nerve, which is this really important part of our parasympathetic nervous system that connects the brain, the brainstem, all the way down through our spinal cord and has connection points in all of our major organs.
 So the vagus nerve is really, deeply connected to how we experience the stress response but also how we calm down from stress response. So, touch, via the vagus nerve, via the brain, is intimately involved with our sense of compassion. Of course, touch triggers oxytocin, which is the love hormone. That sense of belonging or connection. So touch is super important in building cooperative relationships. It’s also really important in calming down and it’s important in linking feelings of reward and well being and compassion. So adults who don’t receive regular human touch, who aren’t in physical contact with another person on a regular basis, can develop this thing called skin hunger, or touch hunger. This isn’t a formal diagnosis, it’s sort of something that has been talked about in literature and has flown around the internet a little bit. But it’s a condition in which people are more prone to experience mental destress, depression, anxiety, because they really aren’t getting the level of physical soothing that they need through touch.
 A couple of other little factoids to throw at you to make my case for why this is important. NBA basketball teams, who’s players touch each other more, win more games. It’s an established correlation. I can’t guarantee causation but the level of connection and closeness that’s communicated through touch, as well as the level of support and encouragement that a player can receive from another player, via touch, can be important in overall team collaboration and communication and team success. Teachers who gently pat students on the hand, those students are more likely to participate in class. They’re more likely to speak up.
 So one of the reasons I think it’s important to talk about this is that many of us are living in a touch deprived culture. We have cultural norms around how often touch happens between adults. It’s interesting, they’ve done some research looking at cultural comparisons of how touch is used. These researchers studied sets of friends who were sitting in cafes around the world. In England, friends who were sitting down to have a cup of tea, they touched each other zero times. That wasn’t a part of the friend interaction. In the U.S., people who are sitting down for coffee touched each other twice. But in France, that number shot up to 110 times per hour. In Puerto Rico, it was as high as 180 times per hour. So there are these big cultural differences in what is normative, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to cultural differences in what is needed or what is helpful or what is calming and soothing.
 Obviously, we have these well meaning standards that guide when touch is important. It’s probably no longer the norm for there to be lots of hugging between teachers and students in schools. We regularly don’t have a lot of touching that happens in the workplace. Those standards, I think, are important, because they are designed to protect people. They’re well meaning. Touch is very sensitive, it’s very powerful and can be misused and certainly misinterpreted. So this sense of being very careful with touch, is wise, especially in the workplace. But I think if you, as a founder, really sit down and think about this, you might notice that a little bit more touch might be helpful in your life. Consider the importance of maybe having more contact, more hugs, more holding hands, more pats on the shoulder with your romantic partner, with your children. Even with friends. Coming to a place where you are able to both give and receive emotional comfort through touch, to another person.
 We can also think about the role that touch might play on your team, if you work with people. Of course, touch becomes a little bit tricky with a distributive team, when people are working in different places, you give virtual high fives, but I think some of this research would make the case for the important of a literal high five. The importance of being able to pat someone on the back, literally, actually making contact between your body and their body, provided that’s okay with them. And, allowing both closeness and comfort, because as I said already, touch can be powerful in terms of building up a sense of collaboration and shared experience.
 If this is resonating with you, if you’re someone who realizes that man, you kinda live in your head and you’re kinda rushing from one place, doing one thing after another, one way to really slow down and move yourself from being only a thinking brain to a feeling brain, is to integrate a little bit more touch into your life. Get a massage once a month, once a week, go dancing. Find other places to have human contact. Go to a yoga class, where there’s a lot of hands on adjustments. Join a bowling club, where there’s regular high fives and hugs and celebrations happening.
 Part of being human is to be social beings. To be connected to other people. Just like members of the animal kingdom, who spend time grooming each other, and cuddling each other, those experiences are very good for us, too. They’re good for our emotional wellbeing, and our relational well being. I would argue that they can be really important in cultivating a team that is trusting and works well together. If you’re unsure about the role that touch might play in your professional life, it’s okay to ask, “Hey, can I give you a high five? Can I give you a hug? Can I pat you on the back?” It’s okay to have conversations around touch and to bring that in to your teams in a way that feels respectful and safe for everybody.
 No matter what, though, touch is essential, and touch is important. So, go find someone and give them a hug. I’m pretty sure you’ll be glad that you did.