Touch Enough: The value of asking for, giving & receiving touch

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The United States is more touch aversive than most other similar nations. Think: Europeans greeting each other with a kiss – we just don’t do that. At whatever point in the evolution of our culture we decided to stop with the touching and created unspoken social rules about it. Those rules have left us lacking in the touch department.

We’re also a culture with high depression and anxiety rates, a higher than expected infant mortality rate, and a high divorce rate. Coincidence? There are multiple factors at play in the development of anxiety or depression, the increased infant mortality rate, and the dissolution of marriages – but touch is definitely part of it.

Touch is essential to human life. It’s important to connection. It’s a natural reliever for stress. It promotes heart rate regulation. It increases cooperation among team members. It communicates for us. It promotes healthy cognitive function. Nurturing touch is a preventative measure for depression when done during infancy.

Touch is the first sense that humans experience and it is often the last one we have.

Touch-based descriptors are embedded in human languages. Nearly all languages have expressions like:

I’m touched.

This is a sticky situation.

He’s a bit abrasive.

She’s a little rough around the edges.

There are thousands of them!

Clearly at some point we knew how important touch was and based a lot of our communication on the one sense that nearly all people possess and understand – or touch is so powerful even if silent, that it worked its way in over time. Either way, it’s placement in language is a testament to how important we find it even when we aren’t giving it the credit it deserves.

You may already be thinking to yourself, “Well, I’m not about to start hugging everyone. I’m not one of those people.” Or maybe even, “How am I supposed to hug my spouse who I’ve grown away from?

I get it. I’m one of the kinds of people that has an invisible 3 foot bubble of space around them. Unless we’re close – and I mean close, people aren’t welcome inside that space. The research on this has me asking myself how this has affected my relationships. It stands to reason that it has. I don’t think I have any relationships suffering, but could they be better if I lightened up on the bubble issue and started spending more time hugging my people? I think so.

Years ago an older friend told me about how her father solved conflicts between his children. When two siblings would argue, he’d have them sit cross legged with their knees touching. During that time period they started off angry, but within a few minutes both kids would collapse into giggles. Conflict solved. That’s an amazing tool based on touch.

The research shows that we can communicate specific emotions to each other with touch, even without being able to simultaneously read facial cues. Scientists had people communicate emotion through a wall without benefit of sight or knowing one another. If participants just guessed at emotions they would’ve gotten it right on average 8% of the time. Participants were right about interpreting compassion through touch (through a spot on the wall) about 60% of the time. In fact, people more accurately interpret feelings through touch than through facial interpretation studies!

Those same researchers studied touch within primate groups and found that groups of primates that touch frequently have strong cooperation and connection. They work for the good of the group and their groups succeed. To translate this to people researchers followed NBA teams. Teams that touched more frequently experienced more success, cooperation, and more wins!

Touch increases the hormone oxytocin, which is the “bonding” hormone. Its presence increases feelings of calm, security, and trust. It even promotes cardiovascular health. Touch decreases cortisol, the “stress” hormone, which causes weight gain, sleep disturbances, concentration difficulties, and lots of other nasty issues.

In one study people were exposed to stress-causing stimuli while their significant other provided soothing touch like hand holding or arm stroking. Compared to people not receiving that touch exposed to the same stimuli the people given comforting touch experienced a much lower (and sometimes nonexistent) stress response.

Once upon a time I had a medical issue that required me to have an MRI. I was terrified because I was worried something was really wrong with me and on top of that they wanted to put me in a tiny tube with my head in a small cage. I can’t really explain exactly why but as I loaded up into the machine my instinct was to blind myself like you would a horse to prevent distraction (I did grow up around horses, maybe that’s where it came from!). I asked for a cloth for my face and put it over my eyes. Then I demanded my husband and my mother stand at the end of the machine and rub my feet. Thankfully they both complied. I made it through and it wasn’t as bad as it had been in my mind before it happened. I have no doubt that the touch of the foot massage was about 80% of the relief I experienced.

At Texas Christian University, the late Dr. Karen Purvis, conducted research and created a program known as TBRI, or trust based relational intervention. Her program emphasizes the importance of attachment and utilizes therapeutic touch to help children recover from trauma and neglect.  Touch plays a huge role in the formation of attachment styles and healing from trauma.

In my own work with children more of them than not get very few hugs and very little physical affection from parents and caregivers, particularly in the teen years. This is something I always ask both my teen clients and their parents about. If they don’t tell me they’re hugging or touching, I assign it as homework.

Brene Brown is famous for her research and work with vulnerability and shame. While being our authentic selves and putting our “self” out into the world despite the fear of rejection is the (very) general gist of her work, it also importantly addresses the connection that supports courage and vulnerability. Humans are designed for connection and thrive with healthy connection. In working with couples who are “lacking affection” or experiencing “distance” or with parents and teens who are disconnected, and I assign the hugging homework, I often hear that they’re afraid. “He/she won’t let me hug him/her.” “My son won’t stand still for it.” “My mom is too angry to let me hug her.”

That’s our read from the situation, facial cues, and fear from rejection. It takes courage to step up and ask for touch. We don’t really have dialog for it because of our cultural aversion to touch. Saying, “Get over here and hug your mother,” puts that mother in the vulnerable spot of being rejected for a physical connection that is vital to relationship health and to life itself. It’s scary. Physical connection is an important component to all connections we make.

In our extremely litigious society we tend to focus on “bad touch”. There is a problem with physical and sexual abuse in our culture. For that reason many professional helpers like teachers, nurses, doctors, and even counselors refrain from any touch that isn’t absolutely “necessary”. Research shows that kids who get appropriate pats on the backs and high fives from teachers succeed more in the classroom. Patients who get supportive pats on the back or hands from doctors experience higher survival rates with complex disease.

One final example of the power of touch – in 2010 twins were born in Australia to a young couple. One twin died shortly after birth. The mother and father asked to hold their baby, got skin to skin with their baby, and held him together. After a while he started to move and gasp. Doctors had pronounced him dead and touch made a difference.

In most Westernized countries babies who are premature like this set of twins were are rushed away from parents, placed in incubators, and kept from human touch. Perhaps our refrain from human skin to skin contact at birth has something to do with our infant mortality rate. Nurturing infant massage and skin to skin contact is linked with infant heart rate regulation, rate of “thrive”, healthy weight gain in infants, improved cognitive function, and lower risk of depression later in life.

So, the case is made for touch as powerful medicine. Here’s how to incorporate more touch into your life:

  1. Hugs in your romantic relationships. Improve communication in your romantic relationship by holding hands, hugging frequently, snuggling, cuddling, and making an effort to touch. It can be difficult to initiate physical contact if your relationship is already strained or feeling distanced. The benefit is that with touch you don’t have to sort your emotions and thoughts out immediately. Touch can be a nonverbal basis for laying groundwork to get the connection back. Start small and build up. Make it a point to hug at particular times of day at first until you get a habit made.
  2. Hug your kids. I don’t care if they’re “teenagery”. Don’t do it in front of their friends or at school functions, but do hug them, every day. Don’t be the first to pull away. Stand there and hug. I’ve seen kids who use drugs and have difficulties with romantic relationships or early sexual activity resolve these issues with hugs. Literally.
  3. The high five. If hugs are too much or you feel concerned about physical contact because of your profession, try the 80’s classic: the high five. High five your students on the way into the classroom. High five your counseling clients or little patients as they leave appointments or as they arrive. Pair these little touches with positive words and eye contact!
  4. Taps & touches. If hugs are too much or high fives are too retro, try the tap and touch. Pat a student on the shoulder as you notice them quietly working on a paper and tell them “good job”.
  5. Sit. Maybe a hug is too much for whatever reason. The cuddle too much. The high five too silly. The taps still too much. Try sitting. When my family and I are just sitting around hanging out, we all have our “spots” on the furniture. These positions are with gaps between them. We don’t touch. When my kids were really little we laid on the couch and snuggled while we watched shows or talked. We don’t do that anymore. (Granted it is difficult now that they’re both grown and one of them is 6 feet tall…). We can actually sit next to each other, though. I don’t have to sit at one end of the couch. I can sit between them.
  6. Massage. The list of benefits to massage therapy is so long I can’t possibly go into it in this post and maintain your interest for the length! Massage is a powerful healing tool that also promotes touching and therefore improved health, cognitive function, and wellbeing. Get you one!

Now that you’re thinking on it – how might increasing touch help your relationships? Your health?

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