Touch can reduce pain, depression and anxiety, researchers say

Whether it’s a hug from a friend or the caress of a weighted blanket, the feeling of touch appears to provide benefits for the body and mind, researchers say.

The sense of touch is the first to develop in babies and is crucial in allowing us to experience and communicate with the environment around us. The loss of contact with others during the Covid pandemic has hit many hard.

While countless studies have suggested that touch is beneficial to our health, few have attempted to bring together the vast field of research.

Now experts have done just that and revealed a simple message: touch helps.

Dr. Helena Hartmann, co-author of the study University Hospital Essensaid, β€œMore consensual touch events throughout the day may help alleviate or possibly buffer mental and physical complaints.”

Published in the journal Nature Human Behaviorthe study included 212 previously published studies and included a statistical analysis of 85 studies involving adults and 52 studies involving newborns.

The results showed that touch was as beneficial for mental health as physical health – a finding that held true for adults and newborns – although touch had a greater impact in some areas than others.

β€œOur work illustrates that touch interventions are best suited for reducing pain, depression, and anxiety in adults and children, and for increasing weight gain in newborns,” the researchers write.

The analysis found that people achieved similar benefits in terms of their physical health when touched by other people as they did by objects – such as social robots or weighted blankets.

Hartmann said that was a surprise. β€œThis means we need to do more research into the potential of weighted blankets or social robots to improve people’s well-being, especially during contact-restricting situations such as the recent Covid-19 pandemic,” she said.

The positive impact on mental health was greater with human touch than with object touch – possibly, the team said, because it involved skin-to-skin contact.

Among other things, the team found that touch was beneficial for both healthy and sick people, although the impact on mental health benefits was greater for the latter.

The type and duration of touch were not important, although greater frequency was associated with greater benefits in adults.

Additionally, touching the head was associated with greater health benefits than touching other parts of the body.

The team warned that some findings could be false positives, while it was not clear whether they would hold across cultures.

Dr. Mariana von Mohr of Royal Holloway, University of London, who was not involved in the work, said that if future robots could more closely mimic the texture and warmth of human skin, they could potentially provide similar mental health benefits to human touch . .

β€œ(These properties are) important because our skin contains specialized sensors known as C-tactile afferents, which are particularly responsive to gentle, caressing touch and a temperature similar to that of human skin, factors that are also thought to facilitate emotional regulation,” she said.

Professor Katerina Fotopoulou from University College London said the study provided a bird’s-eye view of the health benefits of touch interventions.

She cautioned that the work could not yield more specific conclusions, such as the specific types of touch that might be linked to specific health benefits.

Dr. Susannah Walker of Liverpool John Moores University agreed, noting that many of the studies reviewed were small and involved different types of touch and different measures of their outcomes. β€œThis means it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions about why they work,” she said.

Fotopoulou added that the research could spark new work in the field, including how touch could be used alongside other treatments.

β€œIt is a historical accident that over the past centuries we have prioritized talking over touch or other somatic therapies. This review gives us the necessary emphasis and confidence to redress this balance with further, careful research into touch interventions,” she said.