The Science of Connection
To touch is to communicate. Such a simple gesture can reveal anything from current mood to stress levels. It brings us closer on both a physical and psychological level. A touch can be as simple as a hug, a rub on the back, or the holding of hands.
Physical connection may amplify the intensity of the emotions, increase cognition, decrease blood pressure, and even strengthen immunity, whereas long-term loneliness may generate opposite effects (Kahn 2018). Put simply, social interaction is powerful, especially in situations where emotion and tension is strong.
We humans are hard-wired to be in good company. From the moment we are born, we are completely dependent upon others for our survival: this dependency takes us up through adulthood, where we’ve become integral to our social network (Ellingsen 2016). While a little bit of “alone time” can be wonderfully restorative, after a prolonged state of being alone, our brains go into a state of alert (McEwen 2004). It is this state of alert that has a direct impact upon our bodies. The unpleasant feeling of loneliness is literally a biological signal, not unlike hunger or thirst. It drives us to reconnect with friends and loved ones.
On the flipside, when we’re close to those we love, our health reaps the rewards (Preston 2013). Research suggests that not only can affectionate touch strengthen bonds and attachment, but also releases important brain chemicals. Oxytocin is one of those chemicals (Palagi 2006).
Often called the “love hormone,” oxytocin is traditionally linked to feelings of trust, cooperation, generosity, and empathy (Crucianelli 2016). Its effects include pain-killing, hedonic (feel-good) feelings, and directly influence how we process stress. Affectionate touches, such as nudging, snuggling, hugging, etc., further releases beta-endorphins that interact with oxytocin (Morrison 2016).
One study shows the sharp increase of oxytocin in both humans caregivers and their dogs. After a long time apart, oxytocin levels rose upon being reunited. Interestingly, the stress hormone cortisol did not fall until the reunion involved touching rather than mere visual and vocal contact (Rehn 2014).
Oxytocin is also thought to affect social behaviours, including how we adapt to change. In a study involving couples, small electric shocks were administered to volunteers who believed they were being simultaneously touched by their supportive romantic partner. The unpleasantness of the shock was greatly reduced, and the release of oxytocin from the touch decreased overall unpleasantness (Kreuder 2006).
Even primates are known to give comfort to one another. After stressful events such as a fight, primates are most likely to console companions that they are socially close to. (Palagi 2006). So other than feel-good feelings, what’s the point of sticking together? From an evolutionary perspective, it’s a matter of survival: cold and hunger is less likely to affect those in a group rather than someone that is alone. So, we instinctively want to stick close to others. Involuntary isolation triggers the alarm bells in our brains and skyrockets our stress levels (Panksepp 1998).
Stress is adaptive. This means we “get used to it.” The danger inherent to this, of course, is that our stress response occurs at the expense of our body’s normal way of being. Immune function, digestive processes, and inflammation are all affected by stress, and feeling stressed for a long period of time can affect our body’s ability to grow and heal (Herman 1997). It can even shrink neurons in the brain and affect our ability to learn (Kahn 2018).
The systems of the body are remarkably interconnected, and prolonged stress due to prolonged isolation puts pressure on these systems (McEwen 2004). When we’re relaxed, we’re low in stress chemicals and high in feel-good chemicals. We’re better able to fight off diseases and infection.
So, it’s important that we stay in contact with our loved ones. It keeps our wellness up. When we’re lonely, we get stressed out. When we’re stressed, we’re more likely to get sick. Social touch buffers the negative physiological effects of strained stress response systems.
Touch is remarkable because it helps our brains and bodies unwind. When you’re feeling lonely, look for opportunities to connect. Hug your pet, friend, or loved one. Walk arm-in-arm, play patty-cake, or footsie under the dinner table.
If someone you know is having a bad time, try reaching out to them. The act of comforting a friend in distress can also decrease your own stress levels. It causes a “warm glow” feeling, because it not only helps them, but you as well (Preston 2013).
Unfortunately, it is not always possible to connect physically with another. However, humans are remarkably adaptive. Not only have we evolved to fit our physical environments, we’re also capable of adapting to changing societal dynamics. Our behaviours change in a way that’s relevant to realistically changing circumstances, such as times of upheaval and crisis (Morrison 2016).
If it’s not possible to be physically near anybody, try reaching out digitally, or spend some quality time with yourself. We humans love to relax. Focus your attention on your heart rate. Consider drawing a bath to reduce stress, or practice a ritual of self-massage with a body oil formulated for your body’s unique needs.
The Circle of Protection Body Oil, in true European fashion, is as simple and elegant as it is unique and luxurious. It is made specifically for skin types in need of tender care and loving protection. Antioxidative and moisturizing, its radiant beauty oils nourish thirsty skin, while precious plant essences support radiance from the inside and out.
The Gua Sha Facial Tool from Communion Botanicals is rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The physical act of massaging the face is thought to increase circulation and relax the muscles of the face.
A loving, tender touch helps our brainwaves flow towards relaxation. We form emotional and physical connections by literally connecting. A hug, gentle massage, or a simple pat on the back can work wonders in situations of stress. When we’re best equipped to manage that stress, our bodies thank us in kind.
Crucianelli, Laura. Bodily Pleasure and the Self: Experimental, Pharmacological and Clinical Studies on Affective Touch. University of Hertfordshire. 2016
Ellingsen, Dan-Mikael., Lekness, Siri., et. al. “The Neurobiology Shaping Affective Touch: Expectation, Motivation, and Meaning in the Multisensory Context.” Frontiers in Psychology. Vol. 6. 2016.
Herman, J. P., & Cullinan, W. E. “Neurocircuitry of Stress: Central Control of the Hypothalamo-Pituitary-Adrenocortical Axis.” Trends in Neurosciences, 20, 78–84. 1997.
Kahn, Imran & Cañamero, Lola. “Modelling Adaptation through Social Allostasis: Modulating the Effects of Social Touch with Oxytocin in Embodied Agents.” Multimodal Technologies Interaction. 2(4), 67. 2018.
Kreuder, Ann-Kathrin, Wassermann, Leah, et. al. “Oxytocin Enhances the Pain-relieving Effects of Social Support in Romantic Couples.” Hum Brain Mapp. 40(1) 242-251. 2019.
McEwen, B. S. “Protection and Damage from Acute and Chronic Stress: Allostasis and Allostatic Overload and Relevance to the Pathophysiology of Psychiatric Disorders.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1032, 1–7. 2004.
Morrison, India. “Keep Calm and Cuddle On: Social Touch as a Stress Buffer.” Adaptive Human Behaviour and Physiology. Springer. 344-362. 2016.
Palagi, E., Cordoni, G., & Borgognini Tarli, S. “Possible Roles of Consolation in Captive Chimpanzees.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 129, 105–111. 2006
Panksepp, J. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press. 1998.
Preston, S. D., Hofelich, A. J., Stansfield, R. B. “The Ethology of Empathy: A Taxonomy of Realworld Targets of Need and Their Effect on Observers. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 488. 2013.
Rehn, T., Handlin, L., Uvnas-Moberg, K., & Keeling, L. J. “Dogs' Endocrine and Behavioural Responses at Reunion are Affected by How the Human Initiates Contact.” Physiology & Behavior, 124, 45–53. 2014.