The healing power of human touch

“Don’t touch me!” She cringed as if something multi-legged had just crawled across the back of her hand. Sam’s attempt to offer his wife a shoulder rub had been greeted with a less than favourable response.

“Touch has a memory.”

— John Keats, English romantic poet

“Don’t touch me!”

She cringed as if something multi-legged had just crawled across the back of her hand. Sam’s attempt to offer his wife a shoulder rub had been greeted with a less than favourable response.

“You know I don’t like being touched,” she said. “Stop it!”

Sam had always known that his wife was not the “huggy” type but the growing lack of physical contact was becoming an issue.

Sam was aware of his wife’s history — a clingy, emotionally needy mother and an inappropriate father.

A combination that had made her shy away from most forms of physical contact.

Holding hands was rare and hugs all but out of the question.

Not that Sam’s family was any more demonstrative.

Sam’s father seemed to have a disdain for physical contact and Sam’s mother seemed resigned to it.

There may even have been a suggestion that to coddle a child — especially a boy – would make him weak, overly sensitive and passive.

Whereas Sam’s wife did not like to be touched, Sam craved physical contact.

It wasn’t until one day that a friend gave Sam a hug and he started crying that he realized the issue had become more serious than he imagined.

When he sought therapy, the counsellor suggested that Sam was suffering from touch deprivation — a lack of tactile stimulation.

Touch is the most powerful of our five senses.

Not surprising when we consider the holistic nature of touch. Many daily issues can be resolved by the healing touch of another human being: stress, anxiety, tension, sore, strained or tired muscles — even headaches.

Anyone who has ever enjoyed a therapeutic massage knows that touch is healing and restorative.

Touch triggers a cascade of chemical responses including an increase in serotonin and dopamine levels and a decrease in stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.

This bio-chemical shift in the body has been shown to decrease depression and enhance the immune system by increasing natural killer cells and killer cell activity. Touch is good medicine for what ails you.

Some time back, I read a fascinating article by Dr. Ben Benjamin PhD, co-author of The Ethics of Touch and Founder of the Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge, Mass. According to Dr. Benjamin, a century ago, the majority of babies in American orphanages died before the age of seven months, a disturbing statistic. At the time, orphanages were an everyday part of the social landscape. Despite modern antiseptic procedures and adequate food, the mortality rate among these discarded children was heartbreaking.

The babies died not from infectious diseases or malnutrition, but from a lack of human contact – from a lack of touch.

Sterile surroundings could not prevent the deaths, and having enough food made no difference. When the babies were placed in environments where they received physical nurturing, love and attention, they gained weight and ultimately flourished.

Dr. Benjamin has spent years studying the connection between physical contact and health and well-being. “The sensation of touch begins in the womb.

The skin, derived from the same cells as the nervous system, is a perfect instrument for collecting information about our environment long before birth.

A fetus will withdraw from the touch of a probe at less than eight weeks of gestation, showing that the link between touch and survival is one of the first and most important protective mechanisms to develop.”

Studies by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine have shown that a mother’s touch positively influences the development of the child’s brain and deepens the relationship between mother and child. Other long-term benefits including more regular sleep patterns, better neuroendocrine response to stress, more mature functioning of the autonomic nervous systems and better overall cognitive control.

Children welcomed with physical touch and tactile stimulation seem to enjoy lower anxiety levels, fewer symptoms of depression and improved self-esteem. Children deprived of touch in infancy show tendencies toward depression, personality disorders and social regression.

Of our five senses, touch is the only one that does not diminish over time. In fact, our need to touch and be touched increases as we age. I recall visiting some elderly friends at a seniors home. After tea and dessert, I excused myself from the table explaining that I had to get on the road. One of the ladies, a relative of mine, gave me a goodbye hug and kiss on the cheek.

“Anyone else in need of a good hug?” I asked jokingly.

Without exception, everyone at the table came to partake in my offer and more than one had tears in his or her eyes. It was a powerful and moving experience I will never forget.

When my wife hugs me at night, I can feel all my aches and concerns of the day disappear. When my children hug me, (and they love to hug) I feel an immediate rejuvenation – stress melts away and I’m filled with joy and hope. I feel worthy and valued as a person.

I love this quote by American motivational speaker and best-selling author Steve Goodier: “A touch provides comfort in a cold world. It makes us feel secure – uniting us with an affectionate, loving and feeling human being. The warmth it brings is better than the warmth of a fireplace. A touch shields us from the worries of today and delivers a tangible boost in self-confidence. Like the Internet, it allows high-speed access to another soul.”

I hope you never, like Sam, reach the point where you become touch-deprived. Embrace the healing power of touch. Make a point to include more nurturing touch in your life and in the lives of infants, children, teenagers, spouses and especially elderly family members.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.

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