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How important is physical contact to health?

March 4, 2015

An interview with Professor Ralf Nickel about how touch affects health, and why physical contact can promote well-being.

Ralf Nickel Klinik für Psychosomatische Medizin und Psychotherapie in Wiesbaden
Image: Dr.-Horst-Schmidt-Kliniken Wiesbaden

DW: Can touch promote the recovery process after an illness?

Professor Ralf Nickel: Yes. Touch and physical contact by a trusted person has a positive effect on the healing process. Touch helps reduce stress. Our sensation of pain is reduced when someone we care about holds our hand. And our immune systems also respond quite intensely to touch. Touch reduces levels of neurotransmitters such as cortisol that weaken the immune system. And touch also increases levels of neurotransmitters that strengthen the immune system, which in turn promotes healing and recovery from disease. A comforting touch from a trusted person is one of the very best ways to promote relaxation.
In addition, affection also has a positive impact on relaxation. But touch shouldn’t be a solely one-sided matter. Touch is always an interaction between two individuals. And contact with animals can also have positive benefits. But it can’t take the place of the power of human touch.

Do all people need the same amount of physical contact?

The amount of physical contact and touch each person wants and needs is largely determined in the first twelve to eighteen months of live. Over the course of our lives, our experiences will have an impact on our desire for physical contact, but these early experiences remain foundational. People who experienced caring and appropriate warmth and nurturing from their parents as young children are more likely to seek out and enjoy physical touch as adults. But later, traumatic experiences such as physical or sexual abuse can also cause people to reject physical contact. In such cases, therapy can help.

Why does physical touch improve our sense of well-being?

Touch and a sense of closeness usually helps create a sense of comfort and well-being. It helps increase the level of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which is called the “happiness hormone”, and oxytocin, a hormone involved in human bonding. But people’s response to physical contact is also shaped by their experiences. Early childhood experiences have a powerful impact on how adults will later perceive physical touch. And physical contact between two people involves more than just the sensation of touch itself. It also involves the sense of smell, the sensation of warmth, and the other hormones that are affected by touch. Studies have shown that physical contact and touch is essential to survival.

Do our bodies respond equally to every form of physical contact or touch?

The context in which physical contact or touch takes place plays an important role in how that contact is experienced. When two good friends say goodbye with a hug, that touch is happening within a context of affection and trust, so it’s more likely to result in increased levels of hormones associated with feelings of well-being and bonding. But an introverted person who receives a hug from a stranger can find that a stressful experience. In physical contact, the relationship between the two individuals is always key to how that touch is experienced.

Professor Ralf Nickel is director of the Clinic for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at the HSK, Dr. Horst Schmidt Klinik in Wiesbaden.


Interview: Dorothee Grüner

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