Touch is the first language we learn and the only truly universal communication that humans share if you don’t count math. Babies who are not held and touched regularly do not thrive, the absence of physical contact is as severe as withholding food in their development. Skin to skin contact between babies and their mothers is now the standard of care in neo-natal units worldwide because of its healing impact. Studies in orphanages demonstrate the same conclusions: babies who are given more eye contact and physical touch develop better and have less illness. How tragic to be the infant in the control group.
It isn’t just in babies that the power of touch transforms our emotional, mental and physical health. People suffering from physical ailments like fibromyalgia experienced a significant reduction in pain with the addition of therapeutic touch. In a study of Alzheimer’s patients, a minimal addition of therapeutic touch for 20 minutes reduces both the severity and frequency of behavioral symptoms of the disease. Patients became present when touched for only 5 minutes at a time.
New evidence shows that even brief contact produces immediate changes in how people react and process information. Students who are touched on their back or arm by their teachers were twice as likely to participate in class. Human touch from a doctor to a patient actually leaves people with the impression that their visit lasted twice as long. In the sports arena, all the high fives and body bumping is actually improving athletic performance. Touching the people we live with, even a brief massage is correlated with decreased depression symptoms and stronger relationships.
Touch wakes up the prefrontal areas of our brain which control our ability to relax and emote. Holding someone creates a surge of oxytocin, a hormone that helps create a sensation of trust, and to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Even a touch to the shoulder sends a message to the brain that is heard louder than words of support. Touch tells us that there is someone at our backs to share the load which is one of the primary impetuses for human relationships. ‘We are hardwired to distribute our problem solving across brains’ according to James Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.
Nowhere is this language of touch more powerful than in your own home. Seemingly small gestures like a kiss goodbye every morning translates into better traffic safety and increased earnings for the one being kissed. My husband and I have instituted a new ritual upon returning home each evening of holding each other tightly, inhaling and grounding each other in our scent and resetting our breathing together. It only takes a few minutes but has seriously reduced the irritability that evening used to provoke. I have worked to incorporate this holding in my relationships with my children and have seen similar results. Their response to my physical approach tells more than their words ever could about what is happening with them and between us.
Spend a few days consciously aware of how many times you are touched in the day and how many times you reach out to touch someone else. Notice how even the smallest of physical exchanges impact how you feel in the moment and with the person you connected with. I envy the European cultures ease in leaning forward and brushing cheeks with almost everyone they meet. Becoming more fluent in the language of touch may be all we need to transform our lives.