Since our skin is our single biggest organ, it is essential that we experience nurturing touch. What can be referred to as ‘skin hunger,’ is as an important a need to feed as physiological hunger. Without it, studies have shown that babies fail to thrive. Without it, adults do as well. We live in such a touch-deprived and touch-negative society. According to Virginia Satir, ‘we need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”
According to Matt Hertenstein, an experimental psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana, “Hand-holding or hugging also results in a decrease of the stress hormone cortisol.”
"Having this friendly touch, just somebody simply touching our arm and holding it, buffers the physiological consequences of this stressful response," Hertenstein adds.
This kind of skin to skin contact raises the level of oxytocin, known as ‘the cuddle hormone,’ that kicks in when mothers nurse their babies, when orgasm takes place and when people get all cozy, even without sexual interaction. I like to add that “More oxytocin means less oxycontin.”
I was fortunate to have been raised in a family where nurturing touch was plentiful and by consent. Hugs, cuddles and massage were regular occurrences in my home and when I was a teenager, I was involved in a youth group where we would sometimes hang out together in puppy piles at weekend retreats.
Hugs meet skin hunger needs, which are just as vital for wellbeing as food hunger. Without nurturing, non-sexual touch, by consent, we fail to thrive. Touch need not be shared only or primarily between sexually intimate partners. It is not only possible but indeed, enjoyable to cuddle/hug with platonic friends. I have ‘cuddle buddies,’ of all genders who help meet those needs.
In June of that year, at the age of 55, I had a heart attack. As part of my cardiac rehab, I did a lot of walking through my small suburban Philly town called Doylestown. Since hugs are heart healthy, I decided to combine the two activities. Now, nearly four years later, I estimate that I have hugged thousands of people, on the streets of DC, NY, Portland, OR, in airports, in other train stations, at athletic events, at street fairs, in restaurants, at my polling place on Election Day 2016 and many other locales since then. When I hug people, I don’t know what their political beliefs are. I encourage kindness and acceptance. Hugs bring people together across all divides.
When I hug people, I slow down and breathe with them. I am fully present, if only for 20 seconds. Longer is preferable. I feel a mutual heartbeat. When we step away, we carry a piece of each other, a strand of love. Sometimes they cry. Sometimes I do. We each smile and often laugh. We allow ourselves to be fully human. I have been asked how it feels to hug strangers. I respond that once we have hugged, we are no longer strangers. I also have been asked if I feel rejected if people turn down hugs. I don’t since I know that everyone’s touch needs are different.
I also facilitate a workshop for adults, called Cuddle Party which teaches communication, boundary setting and offers nurturing, non-sexual touch, by consent. Some objections to this experience which was founded in 2004, is “Eew, icky strangers. Who wants to cuddle with strangers?” Even if people don’t know each other at the beginning of our time together, they may leave feeling like family of choice. “Why should I pay to cuddle?” I tell them that the workshop is about learning skills that enhance relationships and that the touch aspect is a bonus of those interactions. “Only lonely losers need this.” People of all walks of life attend, from business people to therapists, from students, to CEOs of corporations, from moms and dads to grandparents, from Marines to teachers. Some are in relationships with partners who are not as affectionate and encourage them to attend. Some are single. In the 12 years I have been a certified facilitator, I have cuddled people from all around the world, and lost count of how many I have facilitated; estimating over 300. One at which I assisted, held at a conference in the DC area, had around 400 people in attendance. Normally, they are far smaller, from 10-30 people.
Why touch matters:
- Enhances brain development
- Provides pain relief
- Creates a sense of trust
- Strengthens the immune system
- Increases the ‘feel good’ chemicals oxytocin and dopamine
- Enhances non-sexual intimacy
- Reduces drug and alcohol cravings
- High-fives and hugging teammates improves performance
- When teachers touch students on the shoulder, class participation increases
Love is contagious, with healthy, nurturing touch as a carrier.