Making connections: the importance of touch

Posted by Brittany Dingler

As the class of 2017 settles into college, they are undoubtedly sifting through the conflicting emotions of excitement for a new adventure and nostalgia for the close friends, teammates and teachers with whom they have spent the last four, eight, or even twelve years of their lives.  To ease the transition to this new environment - full of potential but lacking the familiar comforts of home - Skidmore provides various opportunities to meet new people who, it just so happens, are experiencing the same environmental angst.  Whether facilitated by the Pre-College program, Pre-Orientation, Orientation, Scribner Seminar or classes, most First Years are already in the process of solidifying at least a few close friendships.  The importance of these friendships extends beyond the mere construction of a new comfort zone, however, as they play a key role in the maintenance of  one's mental and physical health.  As the semester progresses and workloads continue to increase (even as the daylight rapidly decreases),  even the most organized and prepared students will start to feel stressed, over-whelmed, and as though the only thing they have time for in their "free-time" is homework and studying.  Luckily, the remedy is already at your fingertips - literally.

Dozens of recent studies have explored the powerful effects of human touch on certain hormone levels, concluding that such contact can tweak our body's natural chemistry in such a way as to provide natural, stress-reducing effects (such as by reducing levels of cortisol, the infamous "stress hormone").  Why is this important?  Because although stress can occasionally work for us by tapping into our body's "fight or flight" response the night before that big paper is due, its effects usually inhibit our brain's ability to learn new information.  Furthermore, prolonged stress can take a serious toll on our immune system, potentially compromising our ability to be performance-ready for that test, audition, or game.  Ironically, one of the negative effects of stress is a decreased ability to plan and manage stress.

So what should you do? How can you escape this cortisol-packed cycle? Hug it out.  Recent studies, such as that done by Light et al. (2005), have found that hugging a close friend, partner, or family member for 20 seconds is enough to release a powerful hormone called oxytocin (often referred to as the "cuddle hormone").  Among other stellar qualities, part of oxytocin's good rep comes from its ability to help decrease cortisol levels, thereby reducing stress and providing a much-needed boost to our immune systems.  Want to have that natural dose of oxytocin but need a break from people?  Take a stroll down the first floor of Tisch for some quality canine therapy, as recent studies have also found that petting dogs can provide similar beneficial effects. Also, keep a look out for "K9 Connections" this semester, a therapy dog event hosted by your Peer Health Educators!

Want to know more?  Check out this Ted Talk by Paul Zak, as he discusses how the effects of oxytocin even extend to social interactions between strangers.  In other words, all of those team-building exercises you went through during orientation? They've already given you a head start on the adjustment process, thanks to your new best friend oxytocin.

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