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Science confirms touch alleviates anxiety amid spiking levels globally

As the world grapples with a mental health crisis post-pandemic and in light of findings that record numbers of people are now suffering from anxiety, scientists have been looking for new ways to treat the condition. According to a recent study, hugs are one such solution.

The world is grappling with a mental health crisis.

In Europe, antidepressant consumption has more than doubled in the last 20 years and, according to WHO, the global prevalence of anxiety increased by a massive 25% in the first year of the pandemic.

Not only this, but according to Mind, eight in 100 people in any given week in England will experience mixed anxiety and depression. This number went up to 17.4% for those aged six to 19 UK-wide in 2021.

Characterised by excessive, persistent, and unrealistic worry about everyday things resulting in fear, persistent stress, and a constant feeling of being overwhelmed, approximately 10% of US adults are currently diagnosed with it.

This is unsurprising considering that people have a lot to be anxious about at the moment, amid armed conflicts, climate change, low employment rates, and a rising cost of living.

Fortunately, spaces encouraging conversation are becoming increasingly widespread. Improved dialogue has opened doors to new, more diverse treatment, with greater research into causes, symptoms, and possible support options now prevalent.

In an effort to pivot away from traditional quick-fix prescriptions, some experts are branching out and examining other alternatives beyond just therapy.

We’ve seen Canadian healthcare practitioners tell patients to immerse themselves in nature, researchers verify that music is as beneficial for mental health as exercise, and UK scientists begin looking into how swimming in cold, open water could potentially replace antidepressants in the near future.

More recently, science has confirmed that the sensation of touch can reduce pain, depression, and anxiety. Providing benefits for both the body and the mind – whether it’s a hug, via the caress of a weighted blanket, or even if it comes from a robot – touch, it seems, is really good for us.

While the type of touch doesn’t appear to matter too much, touching on the head or face reportedly works best. In addition, shorter and more frequent touches garner more positive reactions.

‘More consensual touch events throughout our day can help alleviate or potentially buffer against mental and physical complaints,’ Dr Helena Hartmann, the paper’s co-author, tells the Guardian.

‘We need to undertake more research on the potential of weighted blankets or social robots to improve people’s wellbeing, especially during contact-limiting situations like the recent Covid-19 pandemic.’

Published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour and conducted by a team from Ruhr University Bochum in Germany and the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, the research encompassed 212 previously published studies and included a statistical analysis of 85 studies involving adults and 52 involving new-borns.

As it states: ‘We were aware of the importance of touch as a health intervention, but despite many studies, it remained unclear how to use it optimally, what effects can be expected specifically, and what the influencing factors are.’

‘Our work illustrates that touch interventions are best suited for reducing pain, depression, and anxiety in adults and children as well as for increasing weight gain in new-borns.’

Of course, while a large meta-analysis like this helps detect larger patterns across populations, responses to touch still vary from person to person. The researchers also emphasise that touch must be consensual for it to be beneficial.

For many of us though, the data shows that spending more time in physical contact with others can bolster many aspects of our health, which is perhaps to be expected given that touch is the first of our senses to develop, and something we usually miss when it’s not there.

Who would’ve thought, eh? A hug a day really does keep the doctor away.