The Power of Social Touch | Loving Caress Relieve Anxiety

by Shamsul
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The Power of Social Touch | How a Loving Caress Can Relieve Anxiety

Research indicates that maintaining social touch is crucial for our mental well-being. Social connection has the potential to alleviate stress and pain while fostering interpersonal bonds., says a article.

When Valentine’s Day comes, many people will show their love and affection with cards, hugs, chocolates, and gifts.

Alternatively, there exists another method to enhance the well-being of your partner or family member: through physical touch.


Social Touch

Studies show that social contact is essential to our mental health and can l;esson stress and pain while helping us bond with each other.

Physical isolation during lockdown has led many people to develop “skin hunger” and has led to an increase in mental health problems.

A 2021 study of nearly 1,500 participants reported that deprivation of intimate contact from close family and partners was associated with more severe feelings of anxiety and loneliness.

Lack of friendly or professional contact from friends, associations, or work colleagues doesn’t have the same frequency on mental health.


How Can We Experience Social Contact or Touch?

Social interaction is crucial for our well-being. Interestingly, our skin contains specialized cells that detect social touch.

Our skin gives us the power of touch, allowing us to feel objects’ pressure, texture, and vibration. But our skin also has C-tactile fiber sensors that are particularly sensitive to the social touch of people and the caress of a loved one.

C-touch fibers innervate hairy skin and are optimized to detect gentle touch at 1 to 10 centimeters per second, which many people say feels good. If the movement is too fast or too slow, not only are the C-touch fibers less responsive, but people also find the sensation less pleasant.

Interestingly, they are also more sensitive when temperatures are warmer by around 32 degrees Celsius, similar to the heat of a person’s skin.

However, individual differences exist in the need and desire for social contact. Mariana von Mohr, a researcher focused on social cognition at Royal Holloway University in London, expressed the significance of touch, stating, “I believe touch holds great importance.”

At the same time, we must be careful about individual differences because some people prefer to connect in other ways.

But in general, intimate contact between loved ones is important for emotional regulation and feeling protected, where being with others helps us manage and recover from stress.


The Benefits of Social Contact:

Social contact causes the release of the social bonding hormone oxytocin in the brain. Which help to reduce anxiety and pain.

Von Mohr’s research found that romantic partners felt less pain when receiving slow, caressing touch compared to faster. Other studies have shown that touch improves intimacy between couples.

In another study, 84 adult women engaged in an experiment highlighting the soothing power of emotional touch on feelings of social exclusion. Every participant played Cyberball, it is an online ball-tossing game, with two other players who, unbeknownst to the subjects, were bots that eventually stopped throwing the virtual ball to the participant.

This can produce a deep sense of social exclusion and even lead “a participant to break the computer,” Von Mohr said.

However, when half of the participants received a slow, affectionate caress from the experimenter afterward, their feelings of social exclusion were partially alleviated. The other half of the participants who received rapid touch, which did not activate C-tactile fibers, did not experience similar relief.

It is comparable to a mother comforting a child after a similar experience of social suffering, Von Mohr said. “We do this sometimes without knowing how good it is,” she said.

Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, a biologist specializing in touch research at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Mind, emphasizes that C-touch fibers, found in all studied mammals, indicate the evolutionary conservation and importance of these sensory cells for detecting social touch.


From Skin to Brain for A Pleasant Social Touch:

Research suggests that neurons sensitive to social touch may be key to making the touch of a loved one feel good, which in turn helps us bond.

According to a Cell-published study, stimulating neurons in female mice, akin to C-tactile fibers in humans, leads to the release of dopamine, a neurochemical linked to reward, in their brains. Additionally, these Mrgprb4 neurons play a crucial role in enabling female mice to be responsive to the advances of male mice.

Using optogenetics, a now essential neuroscience technique that helps researchers to manipulate the activities of specific neurons by lighting them. The researchers activated Mrgprb4 sensory cells on the back, an area important for social contact in mice where They groom each other and snuggle together.

The researchers observed that female mice exhibit lordosis, a behavior indicating receptivity to male mice, in response to light.

The finding that activation of skin cells can trigger “tactile-like social behavior even without other sensory cues” such as the appearance of another mouse “was quite surprising,” said Abdus-Saboor, author of the new study.

Stimulating the Mrgprb4 neurons felt good, and the female mice spent more time in designated areas of the cage. The area where the researchers activated the cells—intriguingly, stimulating these sensory neurons and engaging in intimate behavior both released dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, it is a key brain area associated with reward.

Upon genetically eliminating the Mrgprb4 sensory neurons, the subjects ceased to release dopamine. It is causing the female mice to reject the advances of male mice after their initial encounter. The touch from the male mouse lost its rewarding nature. Moreover, the male’s attempts were no longer met with a receptive response. Female mice even became combative with their paws raised, making themselves inaccessible to males.

“I thought sometimes they were kicking,” Leah Elias, a postdoctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins University, conducted the study during her time as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Although this study examined the importance of pleasurable touch in sexual behaviors in mice. The researchers say Mrgprb4 cells also play a role in other forms of affiliative social touch, like play.

According to Abdus-Saboor, even at the initial relay station in the skin, before tactile signals reach the brain, there are already specialized cells capable of responding to social stimuli.


Their Rsearch Opens A Potential Target for Future Advances:

“By merely activating these skin neurons, you essentially establish a direct route to the brain,” remarked Elias. “It’s like to discovering a valuable resource.”

With a hug, a caress, or a light hand squeeze, we can already enjoy the power of social touch.

Touch is a good starting point to feel better, more fulfilled, and more connected.

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