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Love Taps: Using Touch for Self-Care in a Touch Deprived World

Love Taps: Using Touch for Self-Care in a Touch Deprived World

by:  Beth Lewis, Yoga & Mindfulness Instructor

Touch is one of the most basic and important forms of communication in our everyday lives.  The benefits and importance of touch (or haptic communication) are often underestimated. While reading The Ethical Use of Touch in Psychotherapy, I was fascinated to learn that in the developing fetus “the skin and the nervous system develop from the same layer of embryonic tissue, the ectoderm” (Hunter and Struve, pg. 5).  With nearly 72 feet of nerves and ½ a million receptors that send messages directly to the spinal cord and brain, the skin is an external nervous system!  Our largest sensory organ is always ready to perceive sensations such as touch, pain, heat, cold and pressure, and is always ready to communicate. Haptic communication can be intentional or unintentional and can be offered or received, it is a tool for interaction and exchange.

This most basic of all senses is so very important to memory, exploration, connection, and communication (to name a few) that deprivation of touch can be life altering.  Touch deprivation can lead to developmental delay in infants and children and can negatively affect the mental health of people of all ages by increasing such feelings of isolation, loneliness, abandonment, and depression.

Lockdown during the pandemic kept us safe from Covid but it also left many single adults touch hungry from missing those weekly hugs from their grandchildren, pats on the shoulder, to no longer shaking hands with colleagues.  The impact of this deprivation, or touch hunger, has been felt by many.  While studies of the negative impacts of social distancing on mental health are just beginning to be published, a quick search on google scholar will generate pages of such studies on this very topic.  Touch hunger increased during Covid but has been a topic of discussion for decades; from extreme examples of orphans that fail to thrive to nursing homes where feelings of isolation and abandonment will not change with a vaccination.

Weze (et al) says it best, “healing by gentle touch ameliorates stress and other symptoms in people suffering mental health disorders and psychological stress” (2007).  So how can we ameliorate our stress and/or the stress of loved ones using the sense of touch?  For starters, harken back to your tween years when you and your siblings or cousins would argue over love taps.  I remember my brother would “accidentally” brush up against my shoulder to cut in line or I would tickle my mom to get her attention.  How about when you were even younger, when you got the tiniest scratch but could always rely on a hug and a kiss to make it all better.  Even if these are not similar to your memories, can you remember a hug you once received?  Or even a high five that felt really good and this memory stays with you to this day.  Close your eyes to try to remember this connection, the person, the sights, sounds, and smells of a hug you recall.  I’ll wait…

The imagery and visualization thing you just did with the hug memory is especially helpful during times you may be feeling blue or lonely and would like to increase some positive emotions.  Remember to use the five senses to spark the visualization and your nervous system.  You may notice a deepening of the breath if you sit with this for a few minutes.

In addition to imagery, let’s add some more tools to your toolbox for Self-Care through touch:

Mimic a hug with a blanket by draping it around and over your shoulders.  Hold the blanket at each side with your hands and cross your arms over each other (looks like a mummy). Belly breath for 30 seconds and softly smile.

Self-massage can be soothing and can be done simply with a tennis ball under the feet.  For more involved head-to-toe attention try rubbing your scalp, then neck and legs.  If you would like to learn more about self-massage, check out this video on Abhyanga

Lastly, how can we ameliorate the stress of others through touch?  A good ol’ fashioned hug, hand on the shoulder and general regard definitely go a long way.  Remember those loved ones that tend to spend more time alone and when you see them next, perhaps you can ask them permission for a hug.

For the people in your life you have strong connection (such as your partner or child) try a few grounding techniques.  While your partner is laying on their back gently hold each of their heels in your hands.  Let the back or your hands rest on the floor while gently squeezing their heels for a full minute.  Next, slowly release their heels and place a rolled-up blanket under their knees, creating a slight bend in the knees.  Always move slowly and be super gentle with your touches.  Touch more with the palm of your hand rather than just the fingers.  Lastly, move to your partner’s head and gently lift their skull off the floor just enough to place your hands underneath. Allow the hands to rest on the floor, their head in your hands.  Cradle them for as long as you both like and allow the breath to slow and deepen.  When ready to release do so on an exhale, gently and slowly.

Notes on touch for self-care and care for others:

  • Always remember to ask permission before touching someone.
  • Tap into your breath before applying touch to yourself and others.
  • Touch and self-care can be difficult for some of us and often bring up feelings of not deserving, guilt, and or shame.  In these instances, small gestures are better than none.  You can start with 1 minute, then 2, then 5, and so on.  Work up to longer moments of care by building on routines.




Communication Theory. (n.d.).

Struve, J., Hunter, M. (2012). The Ethical Use of Touch in Psychotherapy. United States: SAGE

Weze, C., Leathard, H. L., Grange, J., Tiplady, P., & Stevens, G. (2007). Healing by gentle touch
ameliorates stress and other symptoms in people suffering with mental health disorders or
psychological stress. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 4(1), 115–123.