Touch is the undisputed, most important sense for human survival. It is the first sense to develop in a human fetus, the foundation for healthy human growth and development (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs), and helps us to perceive the environment around us through our skin, the largest organ of the human body. Over the past year, humans around the world have had to refrain from this innate, pleasurable behavior that ultimately put our physical and mental health at grave risk of developing dis-ease.
Feelings of loneliness (causing an epidemic, within a pandemic, of anxiety, depression) among all ages has sky-rocketed, 40% of new medication prescriptions were placed in pharmacies to treat anxiety, and individuals with a diagnosed mental health condition found themselves with worsening symptoms and an inability to perform basic activities of daily living (brushing your teeth, for example).
Thankfully, humans found support through a renewed, mutually beneficial relationship with dogs (other nonhuman species, such as cats, are to be celebrated as helpful companions, too!). During this physically distanced period of time, dogs showed up on human laps during corporate Zoom meetings, in bed with children during virtual school hours, and outside on walks in all weather (excitedly pulling on a leash and barking at other dogs, garbage cans, etc., is a 4-part series and therefore cannot be addressed in this article).
Here’s why we turned to dogs for help.
The simple act of reaching for a hand to hold, embracing someone in a hug, or gently petting our dog releases Oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone (found both in humans and dogs) that gives rise to the beautiful feeling of being loved. We quickly discovered that we could temporarily substitute human touch with the touch of our dog to experience the release of a cascade of naturally occurring “happy” hormones.
When we feel good:
- Our immune system works more efficiently (aiding in the prevention of illness or disease)
- Our brain circuits fire less sporadically, leading to increased concentration and better sleep (a scientifically based reason to allow your dog to sleep with you)
- Our levels of circulating stress hormones decreases leading to a better mood, more patience, better memory function, and more energy…
How do dogs feel about the extra attention? When invited, they LOVE it!
(Key here is that every dogs should ALWAYS be invited to accept and participate in activities!)
One simple, no cost, mutually beneficial exercise I recommend for dogs and their human guardians in combating touch deprivation and relieving stress associated with feelings of being alone is to take time to brush your dog.
Gently grooming your dog (with the approval from your dog groomer and/or Veterinarian):
- Decreases shedding and dander among most breeds, which in turn lowers the amount of allergens in the home environment (BTW there is absolutely no breed of dog/cat/bird/other that is hypoallergenic)
- Increases attention to your nonhuman companion’s lumps, bumps, and things that jump (or crawl, such as ticks) to help in the prevention and/or early diagnosis of dis-ease (such as Cancer, Lyme Dis-ease)
- Strengthens the natural bond between you and your dog, improving your dog’s overall behavior (dogs with higher levels of Oxytocin were less likely to chose undesirable behaviors such as barking, chewing, marking)
What if you don’t share space with a nonhuman animal companion?
Turn to Nature:
- Walk barefoot over the soft, green grass
- Carefully move your hand across every edge of the bark on a tree
- Feel the wind blow through your hair
In essence, the cure to loneliness and the key to wellness may be found outdoors or directly beside us, in our homes, resting on a rug, with fur and four legs, waiting to connect through loving touch. After all, nourishing a loving bond to promote healing with One transfers to sharing love with All such as family members, friends, and co-workers.
What we truly love, we do more of!