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Simple actions like consciously placing a hand on your heart or hugging yourself can lower your cortisol levels, heart rate, and help you feel less stressed. Our guest tries a practice in self-soothing touch.
Link to episode transcript: https://tinyurl.com/2zbykwh6
While reading this, you might be fiddling with your fingers or have a hand resting on your face -– these are examples of self-touch. This week, we are examining the benefits of offering ourselves soothing touches with comedian Calvin Cato. Calvin leads a busy, stressful life. He tried the self-soothing touch practice as a way to better connect with himself. He found that physically caring for himself allowed him to reground his emotions and regulate his stress. To his surprise, the physical sensations also triggered fond childhood memories with his father. Later, we hear from self-compassion and mindfulness expert Aljoscha Dreisoerner about why we evolved to crave touch and how self-touch can be as effective as getting a hug from someone else.
- Find a comfortable position to begin the practice. What works for one person might not work for another. Here are some options you can choose from:
- Place one or both hands on your heart or stomach.
- Placing your right hand on your heart and the left on your belly while focusing on the rising and falling of the breath.
- Stroke your arms or cheeks.
- Place your right hand under your left arm, by the side of the heart. Place your left hand on the top of your right arm.
2. Try the practice you choose for at least twenty seconds. While doing the practice, focus on taking a few deep breaths, drawing attention to the pressure and warmth of your hands.
3. Repeat as many times as you would like.
Calvin Cato is a comedian and writer based in New York City.
Learn more about Calvin: https://tinyurl.com/3hcmcf8y
Follow Calvin on Twitter: https://tinyurl.com/2p5pkmkb
Follow Calvin on Instagram: https://tinyurl.com/z5h47asz
Aljoscha Dreisoerner is a Post Doctorate at The University of Vienna interested in self-compassion and mindfulness.
Learn about Aljoscha’s work: https://tinyurl.com/bdfa48n7
Follow Aljoscha on Twitter: https://tinyurl.com/94txhhrj
Follow Aljoscha on Facebook: https://tinyurl.com/yc4wbmfh
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
Why Physical Touch Matters for Your Well-Being: https://tinyurl.com/m2ea524m
Hands On Research: The Science of Touch: https://tinyurl.com/bdfbk36d
Four Ways Hugs Are Good for Your Health: https://tinyurl.com/3x39apr8
How Touch Shapes Emotion: https://tinyurl.com/3ukuut3b
More Resources on self soothing touch:
CBC - Self-soothing strategies to help break a chain of anxious thoughts quickly: https://tinyurl.com/3ksh2u6e
TED - Bonus: Self-soothing exercises with Dr. Kristin Neff: https://tinyurl.com/mvrwa596
Business Insider - It’s possible to be literally starved for touch — here are the symptoms of the condition: https://tinyurl.com/bdc42rh7
Have you tried giving yourself a hug recently? Email us at email@example.com or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
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Calvin Cato; My parents, they were, they were definitely loving, but I wouldn’t say they were warm, especially in terms of like hugging or tactile sensations. My parents didn’t have the best upbringing in terms of their parents, like, their parents were very cold, and they were very distant to them, and so I think that that translated into them kind of trying to bring that to the next generation.
But touch was always something that was important to me. Growing up, it was a running joke that I used to steal hugs from my mom where my mom would be like, Oh, what are you doing? Touching me? And I’d be like, Oh, I’m just hugging. Like this is what I see in sitcoms and at large. And so It was, it’s so funny that it went from a thing of, Oh, goodness, I’m not used to that. But for me the idea of just, like stealing little touches here and there, and then my parents accepting that always made me feel a sense of love and a sense of, like, just kind of feeling like part of a family, really.
Dacher Keltner: Welcome to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner.
It is hard to overstate the importance of touch in our lives. It’s so critical, in fact, that if a newborn baby isn’t touched — they won’t survive. When we touch someone we care about, our brains release oxytocin, a neuropeptide that helps us feel connected to one another – which is a fundamental human need.
Today we’re talking about the science of self-soothing touch. Doing things like placing your hand on your heart, or giving yourself a hug. Our guest is Calvin Cato. He’s a comedian living in New York City, and he knows deeply how important touch is, and how healing it can be.
When we asked him to try a practice for our show, he opted for a happiness practice where you use self-touch as a form of self-compassion.
We also get deeper into the science of self-touch with psychologist Aljoscha Dreisoerner/
Aljoscha Dreisoerner: Some researchers found that people touch their face spontaneously and subconsciously over 700 times a day.
Dacher Keltner: We hear about how we evolved to need touch, and how effective self-touch is, when it comes to coping with stress.
My conversation with Calvin, after these advertisements.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. Our guest didn’t grow up with a very physically affectionate family – and that’s not too much of a surprise, given that the United States – broadly speaking – is a really low touch-culture. We don’t place a lot of importance on it, even though the science shows that it’s crucial to our health.
But Calvin, like most kids, had an intuitive appreciation for touch. Today, he’s a stand-up comedian struggling with the stress, angst, and self-criticism that comes along with trying to forge a creative career. For our show he tried self-soothing touch – like placing your hand gently on your face, heart or belly – to help him feel calmer and a little more self compassionate.
Dacher Keltner: Thanks for being here, Calvin.
Calvin Cato: Thank you so much for having me.
Dacher Keltner: You know, one of the reasons this practice is compelling for our show is the science of touch. It’s really remarkable. You know, your hand makes contact with skin, the skin has billions of cells, including immune cells in there. And then we know, you know, just simple forms of touch can lower the stress hormone, cortisol, it can lower amygdala activation in the brain, it can lower blood pressure, it can trigger oxytocin, which is this peptide, this little chemical that helps you connect to people and it just helps us in so many ways and, unfortunately, we don’t touch enough, you know, we’re kind of often a distant culture in terms of touch.
Why did you choose this self-touch practice?
Calvin Cato: It’s funny, I guess the reason why I was drawn to it was partly just because of self compassion. I just feel like my life in this past year has just been very topsy turvy.
Calvin Cato Performing: Yeah this year is shaping up to be interesting. I’m newly single, is there anyone who’s single here?
Calvin Cato/ And I feel like I’ve just been doing so much go, which I think is such a natural way to be is you’re always kind of like looking for the next project/ Trying to get projects off the ground and trying to meet deadlines and I realized I wasn’t really taking enough time to slow down and check in with myself.
And so something kind of resonated with me.
Dacher Keltner: You know, one of the things I like about this practice is, and it really comes out of the groundbreaking work of Kristen Neff on self-compassion, and it’s so great you brought it up, is it gives you these different activities you can do like you can place one or both hands on your heart or stomach, which I do with my class at Berkeley really powerful. You could put your right hand on your heart and then your left on your belly and just feel the breath. So which of these activities, these touch practices, did you do?
Calvin Cato: So the heart one is something I did on the train actually. I placed my right hand on my heart and my left hand on my stomach and then I just focused on breathing in and out slowly, deliberately and that was one that I did for about a minute. And I have to say it was very calming and it’s so funny. I live in New York city and so, I take a train that goes above ground and it crosses the Manhattan Bridge. And so I would do that exercise when I was like traveling to go to a gig and I would start doing that and then just find myself staring out the window and just like getting a really like calm, placid state going on. It was really trippy actually.
It gave me the sense of having more time than I thought. It was kind of like a bottleneck effect where I was like yeah, I’m thinking about all these things, but then I have to like, sit and consciously do something. And then when I was consciously doing it, I could come out being like, okay, now that I’m more conscious and like self aware, what can I do now that I’m in this less frenzied state?
What I liked was that it helped me to be like, okay, I may feel like needing to analyze all of these things, but let’s check in with yourself first. And at the end of the day, see, are you okay? Cause I feel like that’s something that I at least don’t ask myself that often is like, are you okay? Like really okay and that’s where I felt like the self touch and the slowing down of my life and the being able to like breathe and like take a pause.
Dacher Keltner: Did you try other practices of these?
Calvin Cato: So I was doing the arms one, I would stroke my arms and so I would go from my wrist up to my forearm and then I would go back down. And so that was one that I did for 30 seconds and I made sure to do it slowly. I wasn’t trying to kind of rush it at all because for me a lot of it was about deliberation and really getting to feel your body and getting to feel like, how that touch feels and kind of feel that like rise and fall. And it just ended up being very soothing.
For me, touching and especially positive responses to touch, always brought up a sense of both love and also family. Obviously I feel like only someone who you’re you very emotionally close to is someone who I feel okay with touching and feel okay with like being touched in return.
So this is kind of weird. My dad had hairy arms and so I would always like to like play with them as a kid. And it was nice to just kind of jog those older memories of my dad. It was really sweet, actually.
My dad, he, sadly passed away of liver cancer and I had to drive him to and from chemotherapy, but one of the things I did was when we would drive back my dad would kind of not really know what was going on. So I would extend the drives to longer and longer than they needed to be so we could just talk.
And we’d just talk about like all kinds of things like just political things, family things, social things. And I just got to really know my dad on a deeper level. And so doing that exercise actually kind of brought back those feelings of getting to really bond with my dad and get close to him in his final months.
Dacher Keltner: It’s so interesting to think about how these practices bring us perspective or calm and I’m just curious, Calvin doing this practice as you have, how did it shift your stress?
Calvin Cato: I would say that it definitely reduced my stress. I wouldn’t say that it reduced it, like, a dramatically large amount. But, a lot of what the exercises did was, I was able to get breathing room. And I felt like it was nice for me to just be able to do this and then put everything else on pause. It was nice to get a chance to just have my brain slow down. I feel like I’m always mentally racing a million miles a second. And it was nice to be able to just kind of quiet my mind for just like that minute of just being.
You know a lot of times I don’t think that you are able to really have compassion for yourself and the way to show compassion for yourself is to be able to like, do a soothing touch or like just touch yourself softly and kind of remind yourself that you’re here and you’re grounded and that you are loved and you have a place in the world.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah, powerful.
Well, Calvin Cato, thank you so much for doing the practice. Thank you so much for your amazing insights about touch. And, thanks for being on the show.
Calvin Cato: Thank you so much no problem.
Dacher Keltner: Up next, we’re exploring the science of touch as a self-soothing mechanism, and what changes when we do it intentionally.
Aljoscha Dreisoerner: I think the hand on heart gesture, it’s a little bit like holding yourself. That sounds really fluff. But I think that’s how it works a little bit. You take care of yourself in, in this way,
Dacher Keltner: But first, on our next Science of Happiness episode, we’re getting into the science of song. And what happens to our brains, and relationships when we sing in together. In choirs, in bands, in our living room with friends.
Send us a voice memo of you and your crew singing together and maybe a few words about why you like to sing with others, and what it brings to your life. We may air it on our next episode. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Back to the science of self-soothing touch, after this short break.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner.
When was the last time you put your hand on your face. Maybe rested your chin in your palm, or crossed your arms? You probably don’t remember.
Aljoscha Dreisoerner: What’s fascinating about self touching is that for almost everybody it’s a subconscious thing to regulate yourself.
But odds are, you’re doing it a lot. We all are.
Some researchers found that people touch their face spontaneously and subconsciously over 700 times a day.
Dacher Keltner: Aljoscha Dreisoerner is a psychology professor at The University of Vienna. He studies the effects of self-soothing touch. And he tells a story that I think really captures of its potential.
Aljoscha Dreisoerner: On the red carpet there’s a cool moment, where some photographers want to take a picture of Pedro Pascal.
Dacher Keltner: Pedro Pascal is one of the stars of the HBO show The Last of Us.
Aljoscha Dreisoerner: And then he does this gesture. He puts his hand over his heart and his co-star, Bella Ramsey asked like, “why do you do that?” and then he said, “I put my anxiety right here.”
I can imagine that being on the red carpet, it’s a lot of pressure, even for stars like him.
So what this tells me is that this is an intuitive thing that many people are doing to feel better.
Dacher Keltner: Researchers like Aljoscha believe self-touch has deep evolutionary roots, but it likely didn’t have anything to do with anxiety.
Aljoscha Dreisoerner: It probably started with the idea of grooming to remove parasites and dirt and attend your own wounds. But then over time, It became, you know, from a, “I groom myself,” to “we groom each other.”
Dacher Keltner: What started as an instinct for self-hygiene, may have evolved into a tool to help us form relationships.
Studies show when chimpanzees groom each other, their bodies release oxytocin.
When someone we feel close to touches us, it also can lower our cortisol levels, our heart rates, and our feelings of stress.
Aljoscha Dreisoerner: For me, what’s the most interesting is this idea of emotional regulation.
Dacher Keltner: Since many of us intuitively touch ourselves in self-soothing ways when we’re stressed — things like resting our hands on our hearts — Aljoscha wondered if doing it purposefully might have a similar effect to being touched gently by someone else.
So he did an experiment on 159 German university students. He measured their cortisol through saliva samples, and then hooked them up to electrocardiograms to measure their heart rates.
Next, the students were put into a very stressful, albeit made-up, situation:
Aljoscha Dreisoerner: It works like this: you are invited to be interviewed for your dream job and then you are told that you have five minutes to prepare to give a speech why you are the ideal candidate for this job. And then after the five minutes are up, you give your speech.
Dacher Keltner: All the while, two stern-looking people are sitting behind a desk in lab coats.
Aljoscha Dreisoerner: So they just kind of sit there. They don’t give you any encouragement and just blankly stare at you.
Dacher Keltner: They also had to do an absurd math challenge – while still being watched.
Aljoscha Dreisoerner: We had people count backwards from 2043 in steps of 17. It’s pretty hard. Like some people cried.
Dacher Keltner: The students were then split into groups. One got a 20 second hug from someone they felt comfortable with.
Another was told to give themselves 20-seconds of a self-soothing touch — Either putting their hands on their heart, face, belly, or some combination of those. It was up to them.
Aljoscha Dreisoerner: And we gave people the instruction to focus on the warmth, on the pressure of the hand, on the skin. And on their breathing.
Dacher Keltner: Self-touch and being touched by another person had more or less the same effect.
Aljoscha Dreisoerner: Which we couldn’t believe. We thought that truly, like from someone else, it communicates belonging and that had to be more powerful than being touched by yourself. But we did find a small, if not significant effect of the self-soothing, touch buffering the cortisol response even more.
My study and other studies are beginning to grasp that we can use self-touch actively, like we use meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or listening to music. We can use it as an ad hoc technique to improve how we feel when we are stressed, when we are anxious, when we are tense. That’s the main takeaway.
Dacher Keltner: Next time on The Science of Happiness, we’ll explore another evolutionary wonder — How singing with others really brings us closer to them.
Casper ter Kuile: You know, we can’t all speak at once, but we can sing together. And so it’s an amazing community building tool because it builds a connection between us even faster than meeting people and having a conversation
Dacher Keltner: Thanks for listening to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner.
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Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Sound designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. And our associate producer is Maarya Zafar. Our executive director is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.
Thanks for exploring The Science of Happiness with us. And give yourself a hug today—it’s medicine.