In our digital era, we often forget the warmth and comfort we can find in the human touch. I remember as a teenager the way we hugged each other to say hi or goodbye, the way we were expecting to touch and to be touched by our friends on a regular basis. It seems like we instinctively knew how to reassure ourselves through the multiple changes occurring at that period of life.
As I grew up, slowly, the distance between the people I spend my days with and myself grew too, to the point where I no longer get hugged throughout the day, until I get back to the comfort of my boyfriend’s home at night. We are slowly using that powerful touch can be to calm us, help us connect.
“This is a touch-phobic society. We’re not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily.” Dr Matthew Hertenstein, The Power of Touch
I like to think that if we were able to get back to a more physical way to live, to embody our lives, there would be less suffering.
Sometimes, the experience cannot be described, words are too limited to express what we are feeling. As one of my great yoga teachers likes to remind us, “We are simply too wide, too complex and too beautiful to be reduced to a singl story”.
When we are sad, when we grieve, being hold can do much more than words of compassion. Holding someone tight, breathing together, is all we need to feel that we are connected to each other, to something bigger than ourselves. To know that we are not alone.
However, touching each other does not have to be restricted to more difficult moments. It is also a very natural response to sudden joy, a burst of happiness. Remember when you got that special gift and were so happy that you just jumped into your dad’s arms? Or when you finally got accepted to the program/finally got the job you were hoping to get? Aren’t you reach for someone to hold on tight in those moments as well?
The magic touch: touching as a way of healing
Research has proved what we instinctively knew: hugging is healthy.
Touching helps relieve loneliness, depression, stress and anxiety. A gentle physical contact activates the release of oxytocin, “the cuddle hormone”, which then triggers the development of feelings of attachment. It is what makes us bond, and aren’t we all looking for that in a way?
That seems very logical. Touching makes us feel closer, less vulnerable, more connected. What is even more impressive however is the impact it can have on our physical condition as well. Not only can it slows our heart rate and help lower our blood pressure, but it can also decrease and in some cases eliminate pain.
Something beautiful happens when we are touched. Dr Richard Davidson, one of the most reknown researchers in neurosciences, explored the impact of physical contact on fear and pain through a simple study where women were given small electrical shocks, using MRI to measure the activity happening in their brain as the experience was occurring.
When let alone, the brain scans showed that the women were afraid and physically suffering. Their emotional brain was particularly activated. When a member of the lab team was holding their hand, even though the women couldn’t see his face, the scans showed less anxiety, but the pain area of the brain was still activated. However, if the hand they hold on tight to throughout the experience was their husband’s, the fear and the pain were gone, the brain was soothed.
It is indeed a perfect example of the magic touch. And the stronger the relationship, the more efficient the touch was to relieve fear and pain.
“Something remarquable happens through physical contact. Something as strong as a drug that would have the capacity to calm pain and fear. […] Having the capacity to act on the hypothalamus – and without the side effects – is the dream for the pharmaceutical industry.” – David Servan-Schreiber, Notre corps aime la vérité/Chroniques 1999-2011, traduction libre
Touch me, Mother, so that I may be here
If touching can help us get better, it is probably because it’s in our very nature to be touched. We need to be hold, hugged, to develop ourselves. Many studies have concluded in the need of being touched to grow. Simply put: if we are not touched, we die. Our cells refuse to grow when we don’t have any physical contact with another being.
“The health of a new baby is highly dependent on receiving touch stimulation from other people.” – Bridget Coila, The Effect of Human Contact on Newborn Babies
Newborn babies particularly need to be touched. They need the gentle physical contact to gain weight and grow. The touch of their mother can lower the cortisol levels, the stress hormone, which leads to better sleep for the baby and a tendency to be less fearful later in his life. The oxytocin activated by the touch increasing the feeling of attachment between the baby and his family.
At CHU Ste-Justine, where I got the chance to volunteer, even with all the technologies they get to benefit from, premature infants are still rocked by volunteers. No incubator has yet been invented to replace the comforting arms of a loving one.
Being touched is also a way for children to develop our perception of our own self. As mentioned by David Brooks in The Social Animal,
“The Babe acknowledges a self in the Mother’s form years before it can recognize a self in its own.” Coleridge describes how his own child, then 3 years old, awoke during the night and called out to his mother. “Touch me, only touch me with your finger”, the boy pleaded. The child’s mother was astonished. “Why?” she asked. “I’m not here”, the boy cried. “Touch me, Mother, so that I may be here.”
We need to be touched not only to grow physically, but also to develop our own identity, ground ourselves in our own body, and become embodied human beings.
Hold on to the seniors
Seniors are the ones to receive the least touching. How sad that as we are getting closer to the fearful moment death can represent, we cannot count on the comforting touch of others.
The benefits are multiple for the elderly that are being taken care of and are being gently touched. Touch increases reality orientation and stimulates their mind. Just like it does for everybody else, it also helps decrease pain and enhanced feelings of well-being for that lovely population.
What about having volunteers hugging our seniors just like they do with premature babies? Let’s reflect on that.
A nice finishing touch
“I want to hold your hand.”With their famous song, The Beatles were sharing a simple yet very powerful message. They had understood the impact of human contact on happiness. “ And when I touch you I feel happy inside.” I believe in the end it pretty much comes to that. When I touch you, I do feel happy inside.