A gentle caress, a relaxing massage or a firm hug: touch can relieve pain, depression and anxiety in adults and children. This is shown by an evaluation of more than 130 international studies by a research team from Bochum, Duisburg-Essen and Amsterdam, which was published in the journal “Nature Human Behavior”.

“Touch that is desired improves the well-being of both people with illnesses in clinical situations and healthy people,” explained study author Julian Packheiser from the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Ruhr University Bochum. “If you have the impulse to hug family or friends, you shouldn’t hold back if the other person doesn’t refuse.”

Even a short hug has an effect

The research team’s results show that shorter but more frequent touches are particularly beneficial. “It’s not the case that the longer the touch, the better,” says Packheiser. “It doesn’t have to be an expensive, long massage; even a short hug has a positive effect.”

Touching objects – such as robots, stuffed animals or hugging pillows – would also have positive effects. These resulted in similar physical benefits to human touch, but smaller mental health benefits.

Big effect on mental health

Both adults and small children benefit from touch. “In the case of infants, it is important that it is the parents who carry out this touching. Their touch has a better effect than that of caregivers,” reported Helena Hartmann from the University of Duisburg-Essen. “In adults, however, there are no differences between well-known people and professional staff.”

Numerous studies have shown that the greatest effect of touch in adults is on the mental state of the test subjects. Pain, depression and anxiety decreased significantly. Touch also had a positive effect on cardiovascular factors such as blood pressure and heart rate, but had a smaller effect.