The power of human touch

There was a week in December when three different experiences got me thinking about the power of touch for our mental wellbeing.  I started to research the topic and found that yes indeed, there’s a whole science that backs up the power and importance of touch to human beings.

Exercise and touch

I am currently training as a Pilates teacher and one of the important aspects is helping people align their joints to enable the maximum ease and effectiveness of movements.  This means start positions and the precision of movement are really important in this discipline.  We will often use ‘tactile cueing’, which simply means we use our hands to help clients understand what we are asking of them in terms of body and joint position.  I was in a class recently and watched a teacher helping a woman understand a specific position of the pelvis.  Suddenly the women burst into tears and had to leave the room, swiftly followed by the teacher.  Apparently, it is not that unusual that in opening the body or adopting a position for the first time with the help of a practitioner’s hand, this opens up a flood of emotions.

Human and animal contact

The second experience involved, not a human but a dog.  I volunteer with a charity called Pets As Therapy.  Our volunteers take their pets into hospitals, nursing homes and schools and the dogs provide emotional comfort to the people they meet and have a calming effect on children struggling to read.  We have recently been running a pilot or test in a prison.  One inmate who had been serving a very long sentence, lay down next to the dog on the floor and was stroking the dog.  When he got up, with great emotion in his voice, he said it was the first time he had touched a living thing for 20 years.

Grief and loneliness

My third example comes from my mother.  Still working through the grief of losing a husband (first to incapacitating illness and secondly at the end of his life), she is exploring her new-found freedom and trying new ways of meeting people.  One of her childhood loves was dancing and at 76 she found herself involved in a charity Strictly Come Dancing.  This meant some serious practice and several hours a week of being held by her dancing partner.  Chatting to me she said

when the event was over and there was no more dancing I realised how much I missed being held and a great sadness overcame me when I thought about the future.

There is also a school of thought that grief can ‘get stuck’ and that some healing professionals are able to ‘release’ the blockage helping the grieving process.  Ken Wilbur wrote in The Spectrum of Consciousness

 "For every mental 'problem' or 'knot', there is a corresponding bodily 'knot', and vice versa since, in fact, the body and the mind are not two. That is, psychic conflict,  unresolved grief all can be lodged in the body as body memories, and when the site of the psychic difficulty is deeply touched through massage or other manipulation, it can not only release the physical pain but may make the psychic pain accessible.”

 The science of touching and feeling

Sharon K. Farber Ph.D. from the Mind Body Connection, Psychology Today says

“Being touched and touching someone else are fundamental modes of human interaction. “

David Linden has a good Ted Talk on the Science of Touching and Feeling.  He explains how our ‘touch sensors’ send messages to our brain when we touch and when we are touched.  He also talks about how the lack of touch on very young children causes huge problems in their development.  This science has implications in our increasingly risk-adverse society where professionals are now told touch is inappropriate, which of course some sorts of touching is.  His argument is we need to also consider the huge benefit of appropriate touch in caring situations.

Apparently more and more people are paying for services that involve touch.   Think about how popular massage is and there is also chiropractors, physical therapists, Gestalt therapists, the Alexander-technique and T'ai Chi instructors.  

And finally…..

I notice my children (now men) have grown up in peer groups where hugs are very much part of how they interact with each other, no matter whether they are male or female. This may be an interesting generational shift where the boys and men are more comfortable showing this affection as a hello, a goodbye or a congratulatory gesture or even care and support.  I think that’s probably a good thing.

Perhaps we should all try hugging those we care about a bit more often?