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The Power of Touch in the Face of Fear

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In the dark days of winter, it is not uncommon for existential concerns to creep in and consume the worried mind. Thoughts of family members, significant others, and friends who have passed may flood a person’s mind in the midst of holiday happenings. And while we know death is inevitable, everyone tends to handle it a little differently. Some people manage to embrace this inescapable aspect of the life cycle with acceptance and resolve, while others feel afraid—even terrified—at the thought of it. 

Attempting to live a meaningful life may help to lessen end-of-life anxieties. But for others, finding meaning in their lives may prove difficult. This is especially true for people with low self-esteem, who often find it challenging to see their value and worth as individuals.

A recent series of four studies involving questionnaires about death coupled with real and simulated experiences of touch revealed that something as simple as a “light, open-palmed touch” on the shoulder blade may significantly help those with low self-esteem to feel less anxiety over their mortality.

The researchers noted that in general, these individuals have a tendency to seek social and physical connection to combat their fears of death. They also found that the soothing nature of touch appears to transcend the existential comforts many find in religious teachings and values systems.

In a press release issued by the Association for Psychological Science, psychological scientist and lead researcher Sander Koole of VU University Amsterdam said, “Our findings show that people may still find existential security through interpersonal touch, even in the absence of symbolic meaning derived from religious beliefs or life values” (2013).

Even lightly touching a soft teddy bear offered some relief for the participants, which was reflected in the answers to their questionnaires. Koole went on to say, “Interpersonal touch is such a powerful mechanism that even objects that simulate touch by another person may help to instill in people a sense of existential significance.”

Following their observations, the researchers began exploring the possibility of electronically simulating the experience of a hug through the use of a “haptic jacket,” which is currently touted as creating an experience of “emotional immersion” via strategically placed actuators while watching movies (Jones, 2009).

Ultimately, the research suggests that being reminded through touch that we are not alone, and that the desire for physical contact and affection is shared, does wonders for the human psyche. If anxious thoughts of “the end” are plaguing a person’s mind, a handshake or a hug—or even a light touch on the shoulder—may be enough to snap him or her out of a fear-induced funk temporarily.

References:

  1. Association for Psychological Science (2013, November 6). Touch may alleviate existential fears for people with low self-esteem. Science Daily. Press release. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/touch-may-alleviate-existential-fears-for-people-with-low-self-esteem.html?utm_source=pressrelease&utm_medium=eureka&utm_campaign=existentialtouch
  2. Jones, W. D. (2009, March 18). Jacket lets you feel the movies. IEEE Spectrum. Retrieved from http://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/devices/jacket-lets-you-feel-the-movies
  3. Koole, S. L., Tjew A Sin, M., Schneider, I. K. (2013, November 4). Embodied terror management: Interpersonal touch alleviates existential concerns among individuals with low self-esteem. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797613483478. Retrieved from http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/11/04/0956797613483478.abstract

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Comments
  • jose December 24th, 2013 at 3:03 AM #1

    wow this is pretty powerful, and shows just how muc most of us still need that feeling of having friends and company even through our darkest hours.
    Even those who say that they want to be alone and have no need to be around others are clearly not being truthful because it is proven here and in other studies just how wonderful a tool the power of touch and feeling really are.

  • Peyton December 26th, 2013 at 4:18 AM #2

    I think about elderly people who have lost everyone and everything and they go through the death process all by themselves, and how much more comforted they may feel if they just had someone there with them at the very end to hold their hand and tell them that it’s okay.

  • Quinn December 29th, 2013 at 2:08 AM #3

    I do believe in the power of touch but I don’t think that the power of faith should be discounted either.

  • Gina McB December 30th, 2013 at 10:24 AM #4

    A life without having others around me to love me and touch and hug really isn’t a life that I would want to live. I like being with other people who make me feel close and special just with a tounch of their hand. That is what makes me feel loved, and I know that this does the same for them. Sometimes just a little brush can say so much more than words, and this is important no matter how old you are.

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