Touch, the silent language of compassion, communication, and connection.

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Welcome to 2019! I wanted the first entry of this new year to be about something significant, meaningful and potentially life-changing, so let’s talk about the benefits of touch.

Touch is our first sense to develop and the first language we learn; while in the womb, foetuses touch their face to learn about themselves. As babies and children, we are calmed by the soothing hand of our parent (or primary caregiver) or rewarded with a head rub or a pat on the back.

“We need four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs a day for maintenance and 12 hugs a day for growth.” – Virginia Satir, the American author and social worker who pioneered advances in the practice of family therapy.

As adults, many of us have experienced the ‘healing touch’ of a great massage and the ahhhhh calming release of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Sorry, I mean in English, we have sighed a long exhalation as we felt the tension we didn’t know we were holding melt under the hands of a skilful practitioner.


Being touched and touching others is a fundamental and positive form of human interaction; it soothes, helps us bond and connect with others; it’s linked to feelings of reward and empathy, making us more optimistic, less cynical or suspicious of others. Anthropologists think this is part of why humans have developed various ways of physically greeting each other, from handshakes, cheek kissing, and simple hugs to the more ritualistic Maiori Hongi nose pressing or the urban twenty-first-century fist bumps.

While it’s perfectly reasonable to have preferences and boundaries around our physical contact with strangers, many people have become scared to touch anyone outside their inner circle of family, friends, and intimate relationships.


Why the fuss? 

Reports of loneliness and low mood across all age groups are rising at alarming rates in the UK. Research reveals that people are increasingly touched-deprived as their support network may not be within easy reach. 

While we need to appreciate that some people consider the simple act of any physical contact taboo, and a small percentage of folk suffer from Haphephobia – an extreme fear or phobia of being touched or touching others. 

Studies suggest that missing out on non-sexual touch may leave those less tactile at more risk of social isolation and related depressive conditions. I wonder if greeting (appropriate) new people with a hug and kiss or 3 could benefit our total wellbeing?


So here’s the science bit.

  • Hugging releases oxytocin, also known as the love hormone or cuddle chemical, from the pituitary gland.
  • Oxytocin is also the attachment hormone; it helps us bond with our newborns, friends, and lovers. Just twenty seconds of affectionate touching such as hugging back rubs, gentle stroking is enough to trigger its release.
  • Physical touch can literally rewire the brain and has even been beneficial in boosting the survival rates of patients with complex diseases, including cancer.
  • A hug can decrease anxiety and aggression in teenagers, help manage pain, relieve stress, and calm agitated Alzheimer’s patients.
  • Hugging isn’t a sexual act; it’s a physical expression of care or friendship.
  • A gentle tap on the shoulder is the least invasive or bothersome touch between strangers.

In health and wellbeing 

Hands-on practitioners such as Osteopaths use “therapeutic touch” as the mainstay of their treatment. Also, movement and rehabilitation methods, including one-on-one Pilates, use various direct touches, with significant therapeutic benefits. Clinical studies done over the years have found that it calms the nervous system and mind, decreases the heart rate, can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and stress. The physical and emotional effects of human touch are so profound that it can improve immune function and reduce pain levels. 

Interestingly, some talking therapists and other clinicians are now offering ‘touch therapy’, specifically hugging, as part of their patient management. There are also growing numbers of people seeking their own ‘professional touchers’ to get the benefits.

So it’s no surprise that The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has caught up and is now encouraging NHS workers to give hugs to sick and dying children, but why just children? The instinctive act of touch, including hugs and massage, have been acts of comfort and affection for as long as humans have been, well, human. So wouldn’t all people benefit from kind, non-invasive physical intervention to soothe their pain or calm the agitated, especially during end-of-life care?


How much do you use the silent language of compassion, communication, and connection?

Research has found apparent cultural differences regarding touch. In one study, psychologists watched friends chatting for an hour in cafes around the world; they noted that people in Florida exchange touch twice; in Paris, that number increased to a more healthy 110 times. In Puerto Rico, the average was an astonishing 180 times! It may not be a surprise to learn that in London, the number was zero! Why are many UK residents so hands-off? 


Want to get a little more hands-on?

A simple hand on the arm from someone we care about platonically will make a difference to their wellbeing and ours. Alternatively, the scalp massage we received while at the hairdresser’s, or barbers, the foot rub offered as part of the pedicure will top-up our brains oxytocin stores. Here are some other options to share the love:

  • Hug your friends and family, but hang in for a few seconds longer to get those neurotransmitters flowing.
  • Remember to reach out physically with a kind hand to someone who reports feeling sad; ask first, just in case.
  • Hold hands with your child, grandchild or any child in your life, even if they are old enough to cross the road by themselves. You’ll both reap the benefits, and parents have a responsibility to embarrass their kids daily; I am (kind of) joking!

Did you know?

You don’t need a partner for this; interestingly, the brain can’t distinguish between your hand and someone else’s, which means if you spend extended periods away from your partner, family or friends, or live on your own. Or, for whatever reason, don’t like being touched by others; self-touch can offer the same benefits and help you be more comfortable about being tactile with others if that’s your goal. Here are two simple ways to incorporate more touch into your daily life.

  • Explore the landscape of your scalp with a “shampoo massage” while washing your hair.
  • Taking more time to a massage in face cream or sun protection is a simple thing to do, even for the most time-poor.

Final thoughts

It occurs annually in the USA on January 21st to encourage folk to hug their family and friends more often. National Hugging Day is just around the corner; Kevin Zaborney is credited with coming up with the idea in 1986. 34 years later, many more people seem to miss out on the potentially life-changing benefits of simple non-sexual, physical contact.

Is it time for you to get a little more tactile? Touch is a simple, easy way of letting go of daily stress, whether shared with others or by yourself. A friendly hug or a pat on the back can help us, and the people we touch feel more connected and happier.

It goes without saying that this can be more of a challenge with strangers or acquaintances, but there are plenty of social rules to navigate safely through this maze. For those still nervous, handshaking is still common practice in the UK; done mindfully, it can allow for eye contact and a more significant connection.


Refs:

Does Hugging Provide Stress-Buffering Social Support? A Study of Susceptibility to Upper Respiratory Infection and Illness.Sheldon Cohen, Denise Janicki-Adverts, Ronald B. Turner.

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