This is a short article on a huge and until relatively recently, undeservedly neglected subject. Touch forms the basis of so many of the excellent therapies that are available to us nowadays. I'm aiming here to provide some information and background about some of the reasons why they are so effective in improving our health and well-being.
How Important is Touch ?
The words that spring to mind are - crucial, critical and vital. Literally vital, as without appropriate touch, people cannot grow and develop.
Touch is powerful
"The greatest sense in our body is our touch sense. it’s probably the chief sense in processes of sleeping and waking; it gives us our knowledge of depth or thickness and form; we feel, we love and hate, are touchy and are touched, through ... our skin"
(J Lionel Tayler "The Stages of Human Life" 1921)
Touch is instinct
When a baby cries, it’s instinct to pick up, rock, pat and soothe. When you bang your elbow, it’s instinct to grab it and rub it.
Touch is an unthinking part of our everyday language
We say -
rub up the wrong way out of touch/lost their grip thick skinned or thin skinned the personal touch when something's exactly right, we've "put a finger on it" maybe most telling of all, when someone's moving away, we say "keep in touch", even when what we mean is write or phone.
Dictionary definition of "Touch"
"the action or an act of feeling something with the hand etc"
The operative word is "feeling". Though touch is not in itself an emotion, its sensory elements induce those feelings we describe as emotions. A comforting hand on the shoulder of someone who is distressed produces a very different emotional reaction to an apprehending touch on the shoulder of a miscreant.
The touch of someone's hand, the closeness of an embrace, and the connection of personal contact signify caring and comforting.
Feelings of security, safety, and easiness are amplified.
Touching builds closeness, fosters communication, and nurtures intimacy.
Touching gives a person sense of being cared about and cared for.
Being touched or held makes a person psychologically feel worthy and physically feel soothed.
What is Touch ?
Touch is contact, a relationship with that which lies outside our own periphery. It tells us we're not alone. As infants, it’s primarily through touch that we explore and make sense of world; the loving touch of our carers is essential to growth. The cuddling and stroking received in infancy helps build a healthy self image and nurtures the feeling of being accepted and loved. Psychologists have demonstrated that our perception of how much and how we are touched relates to how we value ourselves, it’s the essential nourishment for self-esteem. Patients with highly contagious conditions who are nursed in isolation and denied skin contact find this experience even more distressing than the symptoms of the condition. "Solitary confinement" is the ultimate punishment.
Touch is much more than a physical interaction. It has to do with the acknowledgement of our shared humanness and mutual recognition of the inherent vulnerability and intense wish for contact that is present in each of us. When we feel loved as a result of an abundance of appropriate touch and affection in our lives, we have an inbuilt sense of safety and inner stability that does not depend upon how other people respond to us. We wake up feeling loved, and go to sleep feeling loved - no matter what slings and arrows get hurled at us in any given day.
How is it possible that touch can be one of most effective means to influence the structures and functions of body and mind ? The answer lies in the skin. Skin is the largest sensory organ of the body, arising in a human embryo from the same ectodermic cell layers as the nervous system. In the evolution of the senses, touch is earliest to develop.
In an adult male there are:
19 square feet of skin which contains 5 million sensory cells and represents 12 % of total body weight Skin is softer in summer - the pores are wider and there is greater lubrication. In winter it's more compact and firm, the pores are closer together and hair sheds less. A piece of skin the size of a 5p has: more than 3 million cells, 100-340 sweat glands, 50 nerve endings and three feet of blood vessels
Skin contains hundreds of thousands of sensory receptors, which are triggered by skin stimuli. Skin, so closely tied to the nervous system, sends messages to our brain via the spinal chord - heart rate and blood pressure react. Appropriate touch can prompt the brain to produce endorphins, the body's natural pain suppressers, which are considered more powerful than morphine. This is why massage can help ease pain.
Functions of the skin
Base for sensory receptors - pressure, pain, pleasure, heat, cold organises and processes information about sensation barrier between organism and environment, toxic materials and foreign bodies protector of underlying parts from injuries temperature regulator immune function - secretes an immune hormone similar to the hormone from the thymus gland that produces antigen-destroying T cells. T cells are important for people who have cancer or similar diseases, which is why holding, backrubbing and comforting touch are so important.
We can live without sight, hearing, smell or taste, but we can’t survive without the functions of skin. Helen Keller, deaf and blind from infancy but who developed communication through skin stimulation shows that where other senses fail, touch can go far to compensate.
Much of the research available to us about the importance of touch has come from the University of Miami's Touch Research Institute. Created in 1991 by the school of medicine, it's the world's first centre for research into the role of touch in human health and development. Directed by Tiffany Field, Ph.D., professor of psychology, paediatrics, and psychiatry, it has a staff of 40 scientists from medicine, biology and psychology and 30 visiting scientists from other universities participating in collaborative studies. I strongly recommend a visit to their site, which includes many, many research abstracts and more. The following are just a few examples of the work done by the Touch Research Institute and elsewhere:
Infants born premature or of crack addicted mothers and not developing well were massaged for fifteen minutes 3 times a day. They gained weight 47% faster than babies who weren't massaged. Nutrition and food intake were the same, they simply developed more than those who were not massaged. 8 months later, their mental and motor abilities showed better development and they had maintained the weight advantage. They had shorter hospital stays by 6 days than those not massaged, resulting in cost savings of approximately $ 3000 per infant.
There are strong links between touch and healthy emotional development. Infants of the Netsilik Inuit of the Canadian Arctic are very calm and cry very little. This is thought to be because they are almost constantly carried on their mothers’ backs and can communicate with their mothers through touch. Dr. Ronald Barr of the Child Development Program at Montreal Children's Hospital asked a group of mothers to carry their babies for at least 3 hours a day. (Mothers in Western societies carry babies for 1-2 hours a day on average). He then compared their crying patterns with those of a group of babies who weren't carried. The babies who were held more cried less.
52 depressed and adjustment disordered hospitalised children and adolescents had 30-minute back massages daily for 5 days. Nurses rated them less anxious and more co-operative. Their nighttime sleep increased. They showed lower saliva cortisol levels, which is an indicator of less depression. Norepinephrine levels decreased. Other youth in a controlled study were shown relaxation videotapes instead of massage. They did not display the positive responses that those who were massaged did.
26 adults with migraine headaches were randomly assigned to a massage therapy group, which received twice-weekly 30-minute massages for 5 consecutive weeks, or a wait-list control group. The massage group reported fewer distress symptoms, less pain, more headache free days, fewer sleep disturbances, taking fewer analgesics and also increased serotonin levels.
Touch deprivation - what happens if we’re not Touched ?
The 13th century historian Salimbene described an experiment made by the German Emperor Frederick II, who wanted to know what language children would speak if raised without hearing any words at all. Babies were taken from their mothers and raised in isolation. The result was that they all died. Salimbene wrote in 1248, "They could not live without petting." Nor can anyone else. Untouched adults may not die physically, but life will not be experienced to the full.
Several investigators have suggested that touch deprivation in childhood leads to physical violence. Dr Prescott believes that "the deprivation of body touch, contact and movement are basic causes of a number of emotional disturbances including depressive and autistic behaviors, hyperactivity, sexual aberration, drug abuse, violence and aggression." His theory is that lack of sensory stimulation in childhood leads to addiction to sensory stimulation in adulthood resulting in delinquency, drug use and crime.
Touch deprivation is also harmful because it severely affects sleep, which is necessary for the conservation of energy. Heinicke and Westheimer studied 2 year-old children separated from their parents for 2 to 20 weeks and living in institutions where they received less touch. Even after being reunited with their parents, most had difficulty falling or remaining asleep. In all studies on separations of very young children from their mothers, sleep was always affected. The time children required to fall asleep was longer, and night waking was more frequent.
A suppressed immune response was noted in several studies following the separation of monkeys from their mothers. Less antibody production and less natural killer cell activity resulted. After reunion with their mothers, immune function returned to normal. Studies on touch deprivation among pre-school children who were separated from their mothers also noted more frequent illnesses, particularly upper respiratory infections, diarrhoea and constipation.
The Stigma of Touch
Many societies in the modern West are "touch-starved" We actively discourage the kind of affection that is expressed naturally in other cultures. It's socially unacceptable to touch. There is an unwritten rule that says the less you know someone further away you must be. Think about being on a train. When another passenger gets on, the last place they will choose to sit is next to an occupied seat. Only when there is no other option, will they actually sit next to someone else.
All too often, when we hear about touch, it is in the context of pornography, abuse and violence. We go out of way to ignore or deny the need for caring touch, and because our bodies remain imprinted with that basic need, we live with the consequences: reduced well being, fear, depression, insecurity, abusiveness, mental illnesses. The high levels of publicity given to sexual abuse over recent years have been a great deterrent for healthy touching. We're afraid of touching because our actions might be misinterpreted - hence children are deprived of appropriate touch at very early age. Our response has been analogous to that of the person who having eaten some bad food, decides that the best course of action in the future is not to eat at all, rather than ensuring that what is eaten is healthy
So too it is with touch. There's the rotten variety, which will make us ill, but there's also the nourishing, wholesome kind, which is the staff of life itself. Please, let's not allow the existence of harmful touch to lead us to deprivation.
This short article has just touched (there we go again !) the surface of this enormous and much neglected subject. Every time I talk on it to groups, I'm amazed and delighted at people's response. Recently, an audience contained someone whose wife had gone into residential care some months previously, and who himself has cancer. During the discussion section, he shared his entirely predictable feelings - depression, isolation, anxiety. He said "I thought there was something wrong with me, that I needed Prozac to get myself back to normal. Now I'm thinking I am normal - it's not drugs I need but simply a warm caring touch every now and then." I hope maybe that someone else who reads this will be prompted to start thinking in a similar direction. If you want further reading, I can't do better than recommend Ashley Montagu's absolutely superb work: "Touching" (Harper Row). First published in 1971, it's a magnificent and highly readable account of the human significance of the skin.
Judy Rigby is a Registered Practitioner with the Massage Training Institute, a Member of the Association of Reflexologists and an Associate of the UK Reiki Federation. She practices a range of holistic touch therapies and teaches Reiki in Edmonton, North London. More information about her practice and how to contact her is at:
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