The Tiny Book of Body Language The Tiny Book of Body Language
What Does Self Touching Or Auto Contact Mean in Body Language?
Tugging at the ears helps distract the mind from emotional stress.

Tugging at the ears helps distract the mind from emotional stress.

“Auto contact” is a term used to describe any gesture such as stroking the beard, rubbing the hands, tugging the ear, massaging the throat, pulling the fingers, rubbing the back of the neck and so forth, which is meant to sooth the body and create comfort. These gestures called “pacifiers” are also used to eliminate internal tensions and provide reassurance. It is believed that these mannerisms stem from childhood sources when our parents would comfort us with touch. Grooming and self touching stems from arousal but this arousal can be due to a variety of reasons. It might stem from anxiety, anger, stress or uncertainty. It will be your job to decide which is the main cause, and part of this means that you need to take context in mind.

Social touching has been shown to increase oxytocin which is a natural chemical messenger released by the brain. Oxytocin also helps in reducing anxiety, and creates feelings of contentment, calmness and trust. Self touching serves to fight the underlying stress associated with the negative stimulus so as to recreate the feelings of having someone sooth you.

Women have been known to create comfort in a very interesting way. Bouncing a leg up and down and squeeze their upper thighs tightly together can sometimes result in orgasm but even if a climax is not reached, women still enjoy the benefits of stimulation. Women may also lightly brush the lower parts of their breasts as they crossing their arms, which is also an effort to self sooth. Resting the head on a hand or rubbing the back of the neck, wringing the hands or rubbing the legs are all substitutes to more overt self-stimulation. Men might resort to rubbing their temples and women might employ hair touches and grooming or stroking the sides of their arms. As we see, self touching in a variety of ways can show hidden insecurities when taken in proper context.

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  1. Shawn
    28 mos, 2 wks ago

    Has auto contact been studied to verify that it does in fact have an effect on oxytocin levels? Have the oxytocin level changes resulting from auto contact been compared to changes in oxytocin produced as a result of social touch? What about the effect of different types of auto contact (i.e. different locations, amount of skin to skin contact, etc.) on oxytocin levels?

    Such research could allow people interested in body language to evaluate how stressed out a person is. For instance, perhaps those who touch their lips are more stressed out than others because the touching the lips as opposed to crossing ankles results in a greater change in oxytocin.

    Intuitively it seems that the self-soothing properties of auto contact, must have an effect on oxytocin. One can think of persons overwhelmed with grief hugging themselves and rocking their body in an attempt to alleviate their distress.

  2. Chris Site Author
    28 mos, 2 wks ago

    I know of one study that found that auto contact was used more predominantly for self soothing and that it had a positive effect on men and not on women, even though both did it. I don’t know if it has been related to hormonal changes or not. I know that touching between people has a far more profound effect that any touching that can happen by a person on him or herself – but this is just a common sense conclusion. Going as deep as you have on this is something that could be explored, but I suspect that people might not find any significant difference. It’s hard to replace that social element that people seem to crave.

  3. Shawn
    28 mos, 2 wks ago

    Could you give a reference to the study?

  4. Chris Site Author
    28 mos, 2 wks ago

    The primary researcher is Mohiyeddini, C., Bauer, S. He conducted three studies…

    1) Mohiyeddini, C., Bauer, S., & Semple, S. (2013a). Displacement behaviour is associated with reduced stress levels among men but not women. PLoS One, 8, e56355.

    2) Mohiyeddini, C., Bauer, S., & Semple, S. (2013b). Public self-consciousness moderates the link between displacement behaviour and experience of stress in women. Stress, 16, 384–392.

    3) Mohiyeddini, C., & Semple, S. (2013). Displacement behaviour regulates the experience of stress in men. Stress, 16, 163–171.

    You can find more detail about auto contact or displacement behaviours as well as more resources (at bottom) here:

    Some of the resources will include links below the citation – you need to paste these into your browser to take you to an article, these will draw you to more details about the research itself.

    Hope this helps.

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