Healing Touch: Mental Health Improved with Touch Intervention

Summary: Touch interventions significantly benefit both physical and mental health, with particular advantages for individuals facing health challenges. The study, aggregating hundreds of individual studies, demonstrates that the nature of the touch, the person providing it, or the duration matters less than the frequency, suggesting even brief interactions like hugs can be profoundly impactful.

Furthermore, while touch from objects or robots can improve physical well-being, human touch appears essential for alleviating mental health conditions, underscoring the emotional component of touch. The research also highlights the enhanced benefits of parental touch for newborns, emphasizing its potential to support infant health in critical care situations.

Key Facts:

  1. Touch interventions effectively reduce pain, anxiety, depression, and stress, with greater benefits observed in those with existing health conditions.
  2. Frequency of touch has a more significant impact on well-being than the duration or source of the touch, highlighting the effectiveness of even small gestures of connection.
  3. While non-human touch can aid physical health, human touch is crucial for mental well-being, indicating the importance of an emotional bond in touch interventions.

Source: KNAW

You might recognize the comforting feeling when someone offers you a hug at the end of a stressful day or strokes your shoulder when you’re feeling down. But the question remains: can touch really help you feel better, and does it matter who it’s from or how they touch you?

To explore these questions, researchers from the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and the University Hospital Essen conducted a large-scale analysis of studies exploring touch interventions.

This shows friends hugging.
A quick hug could therefore be even more impactful than a massage if it is offered more frequently. Credit: Neuroscience News

The benefits of touch on mental and physical health

Does touch truly improve someone’s wellbeing? It is an easy question to ask but more complicated to answer. Individual studies often only focus on specific instances and may contradict each other.

Combining all these studies together for a large-scale analysis offers a clearer answer: yes, touch substantially improves both physical and mental wellbeing, for example via reduction of pain, anxiety, depression, and stress in adults. But in fact, those with physical or mental health problems (and therefore most in need of support) benefit even more from touch than healthy adults.

“This is especially relevant considering how often touch interventions are overlooked” Packheiser, first author, adds.

“A key question of our study is to leverage the hundreds of individual studies out there to identify what type of touch works best,” adds professor Keysers, director of the Social Brain Lab.

“What if you don’t have a friend or partner close by to hug you? Would touch from a stranger or even a machine also help? And how often?. The study clearly shows that touch can indeed be optimized, but the most important factors are not necessarily those we suspect.”

Interestingly, the person touching you, how they touch you, and the duration of their touch doesn’t make a difference in terms of impact. A long-lasting massage by a therapist could therefore be just as effective as a quick hug offered by a friend.

That is, until the frequency of the intervention is considered. The more often a touch intervention is offered, the greater the impact. A quick hug could therefore be even more impactful than a massage if it is offered more frequently.

Human or non-human touch?

The next question was whether touch intervention needs to be human at all. As it turns out, object or robot interventions can be equally effective at improving physical wellbeing.

“There are lots of people in need of wellbeing improvements, perhaps because they’re lonely but also because they may be inflicted by clinical conditions. These results indicate that a touch-robot, or even a simple weighted blanket has the potential to help those people”, last author Frédéric Michon explains.

However, the benefits of robot and object interventions are less effective for mental wellbeing. Mental health disorders like anxiety or depression might therefore require human touch after all, “perhaps suggestive of the importance for an emotional component associated with the touch”, Michon point out.

While the researchers were equally curious about human-to-animal contact, studies exploring this question are still lacking.

“It would be useful to see whether an animal’s or pet’s touch could improve wellbeing, and inversely if they also benefit from it, but unfortunately there simply aren’t enough studies, or properly controlled ones, for us to draw any general conclusions on these topics”, Michon clarifies.

Touch interventions across ages

When the team looked into the impact of touch on newborns, they found out that newborns also benefited significantly from touch. However, the person conducting the touch intervention was more important: the benefits of touch are higher when done by a parent instead of a healthcare worker.

“This finding could be impactful”, Packheiser adds.

“Death rates due to premature births are high in some countries and the knowledge that a baby benefits more from the touch of their own parent offers another easily implementable form of support for the baby’s health”.

Due to a lack of studies, it proved difficult to draw conclusions about children and teenagers.

“Large scale studies like this help us draw more general conclusions but they also help us identify where research is lacking”, Michon explains.

“We hope that our findings can steer future research to explore lesser-known questions. This includes animal touch, but also touch across ages, and in specific clinical settings like autistic patients, another category that has not been explored extensively”.

About this mental health and touch research news

Author: Eline Feenstra
Source: KNAW
Contact: Eline Feenstra – KNAW
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
A systematic review and multivariate meta-analysis of the physical and mental health benefits of touch interventions” by Christian Keysers et al. Nature Human Behavior


A systematic review and multivariate meta-analysis of the physical and mental health benefits of touch interventions

Receiving touch is of critical importance, as many studies have shown that touch promotes mental and physical well-being.

We conducted a pre-registered (PROSPERO: CRD42022304281) systematic review and multilevel meta-analysis encompassing 137 studies in the meta-analysis and 75 additional studies in the systematic review (n = 12,966 individuals, search via Google Scholar, PubMed and Web of Science until 1 October 2022) to identify critical factors moderating touch intervention efficacy.

Included studies always featured a touch versus no touch control intervention with diverse health outcomes as dependent variables. Risk of bias was assessed via small study, randomization, sequencing, performance and attrition bias.

Touch interventions were especially effective in regulating cortisol levels (Hedges’ g = 0.78, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.24 to 1.31) and increasing weight (0.65, 95% CI 0.37 to 0.94) in newborns as well as in reducing pain (0.69, 95% CI 0.48 to 0.89), feelings of depression (0.59, 95% CI 0.40 to 0.78) and state (0.64, 95% CI 0.44 to 0.84) or trait anxiety (0.59, 95% CI 0.40 to 0.77) for adults.

Comparing touch interventions involving objects or robots resulted in similar physical (0.56, 95% CI 0.24 to 0.88 versus 0.51, 95% CI 0.38 to 0.64) but lower mental health benefits (0.34, 95% CI 0.19 to 0.49 versus 0.58, 95% CI 0.43 to 0.73). Adult clinical cohorts profited more strongly in mental health domains compared with healthy individuals (0.63, 95% CI 0.46 to 0.80 versus 0.37, 95% CI 0.20 to 0.55).

We found no difference in health benefits in adults when comparing touch applied by a familiar person or a health care professional (0.51, 95% CI 0.29 to 0.73 versus 0.50, 95% CI 0.38 to 0.61), but parental touch was more beneficial in newborns (0.69, 95% CI 0.50 to 0.88 versus 0.39, 95% CI 0.18 to 0.61). Small but significant small study bias and the impossibility to blind experimental conditions need to be considered.

Leveraging factors that influence touch intervention efficacy will help maximize the benefits of future interventions and focus research in this field.

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