Contact with people and animals improves our physical and mental health

An analysis of more than 200 studies involving nearly 13.000 people found that touch such as hugging, cuddling and massage can reduce pain, depression and anxiety in adults and children. Studies show that benefits are seen in both healthy people and clinical settings.

Touch, the sense that puts us in constant contact with reality, is the first sense that develops in babies. Previous research has analyzed how the way we interact more directly with the world has a positive impact on physical and mental health, although they did not take into account the influence of other variables such as the type of contact or who makes it.

Today, the journal Nature Human Behavior published a systematic review and meta-analysis of 212 studies with 12.966 people analyzing the benefits of affection.

The authors, led by Julian Packheiser, a neuroscientist at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, found strong evidence of health benefits in adults who come into physical contact with people or objects, including robots or body pillows.

"Our research is important because tactile interventions can be a very powerful tool to improve the health of the general population.” explains Packheiser. "But we need to know what limiting factors influence its effectiveness.".

the power of hugs

the contact

The authors found similar benefits for physical health and only slightly smaller benefits for mental health when people touched another person instead of an object.

"This is very important for people who, due to loneliness or illness, cannot interact with others."Packheiser said."This was true for everyone during the pandemic, so this result could have concrete implications for the future".

The frequency of petting is also important because more frequent intervention is associated with more beneficial results. They have also been shown to be effective in improving the mental health of both clinical and healthy populations. Similarly, the effectiveness of petting was relatively similar across all cultures, age groups, and genders analyzed.

However, there is no difference depending on the type of communication (for example, massage or hug).
 "Massages, hugs or caresses seemed to be just as effective. The duration of the caress was also not important, but the frequency of the intervention was. So getting a massage is often better, but it doesn't have to last a long time,” he added. “People who receive a massage feel better than those who receive affection from a friend or partner.”"He explains.
"However, the situation is different for newborns because they are more likely to improve when touched by their parents than when touched by a nurse.".

The authors also observed a stronger effect when touching the head (e.g., face or scalp) compared to other parts of the body, such as the trunk, with unidirectional rather than bidirectional contact being more beneficial.

The benefit occurs if the contact is consensual

"Consent is essential to alleviate symptoms of pain, anxiety and depression. If there is a need for contact, we can only recommend that interactions such as hugs or massages be integrated more into the therapeutic context to reduce these feelings.”Packheiser continued.

"It could be a complementary action to existing therapies in, for example, pain syndromes or depressive disorders: giving people, for example, a weighted blanket or a social robot, or seeking more contact in their environment”he suggests. “We hope that our study will have a long-term impact on policy makers, who could implement measures of this type".

Upcoming research

The authors suggest that future work should test the effectiveness of different sensory interventions in large controlled trials to ensure the validity of the results on the benefits of touch.

Additionally, they could test whether tactile interactions are equally effective across cultures, since most existing research is based on middle- and high-income cultures.

"We take such a global approach that details are often missing. Although we know that, for example, the mental health did not improve as much with robotic contact as with human contact, we could not understand why”, Packheiser points out. “The mechanisms underlying these findings remain poorly understood."

Reference:

Julian Packheiser et al.: “A systematic review and multivariate meta-analysis of the physical and mental health benefits of touch interventions.” Nature Human Behavior 2024

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