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Can ASMR help with Touch Starvation?

We are in the midst of a drought; A human touch drought. 

The term “Touch Starvation” sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, but is actually frequently used in medical articles to describe the growing lack of touch in our daily lives. 

Skin is the largest organ of the body, and much like our primitive ancestors, we need non-sexual physical touch to be at our emotional and mental best. So why is touch important? Besides the fact that it just feels good, touch helps to regulate dopamine and oxytocin levels in our brain. It also helps to keep cortisol, the stress hormone, at lower levels. Besides stress, high cortisol levels can wreak havoc on our heart rates, blood pressure and inflammatory markers. When cortisol levels are up our breath quickens and our muscles tense and our digestion is disturbed. Not to mention what this does to our sleep patterns! 

In recent years, neuroscientists have rediscovered several groups of nerve patterns that cover our bodies. Each of these groups are responsible for receiving and processing different types of external stimuli related to touch. One group in particular, the C-tactile fibers, convey messages towards the central nervous system. It is these fibers that pick up on the temperature and velocity that allows us to discern between a pat on the back, a caress on our cheek, and other forms of light touch. 

Francis McGlone, a British neuroscientist and leader in the field has said “The reward system in our brains promotes behavior that is beneficial to survival. Looking back in evolution, it became apparent that organisms that work together were far more successful. To encourage that togetherness, there was a need to promote the value of close physical contact.” Additionally, the study of grooming in primates further expands upon the idea that physical touch supports our ability to socially bond. 

Furthermore, studies on C-Tactile related touch shows that it isn’t the brain that is activated by light touch, it is actually the limbic system which monitors not only our emotions, but an important body function called interoception. Interoception is what helps us know when we are hungry, tired or in need of a glass of water. This indicates that light touch is deeply tied up into how we feel, and that by stimulating this group of nerves, we can develop a greater intelligence of our own inner awareness. 

So, much like regular exercise, fresh air, rest and a healthy diet play a role in our health, so do the interactions with the humans around us. Perhaps you have a home full of loved ones, or maybe you live alone and your main mode of socialization is with friends and colleagues. In both cases you may rarely be receiving the non-sexual, physical touch that your system needs to thrive.

So, what is quality, C-Tactile touch composed of?

  • Safety: The source from which it comes is one of the most important factors of quality touch. Having a loved one touch your back vs a stranger on the subway is enough to prove this. The touch must come from a trusted place in order to be beneficial. 

  • Non-expectant: Touch that comes with ulterior motives can throw our nervous system off and create the opposite feelings of nurturing. Quality touch does not have expectations. 

  • Speed: Quality touch moves at a slow and steady speed, or stays quietly in place. This allows the nervous system to relax.

  • Pressure: Quality touch is gentle and considerate. Light pressure implies effort and care for the person on the receiving end of it. 

  • Timing: Quality touch is attuned and aware of the body language of another. It can feel when it’s time to stay and, equally as valuable, when it is time to go.

If you are lucky enough to have loved ones nearby, now could be a good time to have a discussion and figure out if you are taking the time to include touch in your relationship. If your intimate network leans a thin, there is a new growing movement of ASMR in-person sessions that could alleviate the downsides of touch isolation. Unlike massage, which can be physically challenging, ASMR sessions focus on light, nurturing touch. 

Quality touch is needed now more than ever in our society, and solutions are starting to emerge. It may take time for us to relearn how to touch and be touched, but with practice we can collectively reap the rewards. 

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