20 Jun 2020

Tiffany Field: the power of touch in a socially distant world

From Saturday Morning, 11:05 am on 20 June 2020

A survey into how people have been dealing with the lack of physical contact during lockdown has found that 60 percent felt deprived of touch, and that can lead to a raft of health problems including depression and anxiety.

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Photo: Claudio Schwarz/Unsplash

Professor Tiffany Field is the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami and she studies human touch: why we need it, what it can do for us and how the importance of touch is affected by our cultural background.

A survey of people in lockdown undertaken in April found that about 60 percent of respondents had touch deprivation which can lead to health problems such as stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep disturbance and post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Prof Field said one of the biggest problems was sleep disturbance.

She said it could be a vicious circle as touch deprivation contributes to anxiety about the Covid situation but anxiety also contributes to touch deprivation.

She said stimulation of the skin through touch, massage therapy or exercise is essential to wellbeing and health.

"I'm just telling people, you know just walk around your room, sit and swing your legs and and you will be stimulating, you will be moving the skin and all of that will help if you're not getting enough touch at home."

Prof Field has done research into the use massage therapy to stimulate growth in premature babies.

"We massaged them and they gained more weight, 47 percent more weight and they were discharged five days earlier, so yes that was very effective."

The results came from a study which compared premature babies who received massage with a group of premature babies who did not.

Prof Field said she went on to do other studies, which generally involved parents massaging their children or parents massaging each other.

"We have now many adult studies as well and it's very effective because it not only reduces depression and anxiety and those kind of awful emotional feelings, but it is a very strong physiological, biochemical kind of stimulus that basically contributes to our immune function.

"When you move the skin as you do in massage therapy, or you do in virtually any kind of exercise, including just walking around the room, you're stimulating pressure receptors in your skin and when that happens your nervous system slows down."

It slowed down the heart rate, blood pressure and brainwaves and diminished stress hormones like cortisol, she said.

Prof Field said when stress hormones are reduced it can save immune cells which can then kill the viral, bacterial or cancer cells.