I had intended to write this month on the subject of stress. However, October 2020 is Pro-Touch Awareness Month so the topic of touch was calling to me instead. It felt appropriate to take this sideways step as touch can be beneficial in helping to ease stress and anxiety anyway.
So, what does touch mean to you?
The kind of touch I want to talk about is the positive, caring, nurturing touch that is so important to human beings. Whether it is a hand placed on the arm or shoulder, holding someone’s hand, a hug, a shoulder or foot rub, or a form of touch therapy such as massage or reflexology.
I am well aware that touch can also be unwanted, unpleasant, frightening or even dangerous. This is not the kind of touch I want to focus on here. In fact, teaching children and young people early in their lives about positive touch is very important in order to ensure that they have a natural understanding of appropriate, positive, consensual touch as they grow up.
Positive, caring touch is a basic human need, from birth all the way through our lives to the very last moments. Studies on both human infants and monkeys have shown that babies raised without touch do not live and thrive as well as babies raised with lots of loving touch. Equally extensive studies have shown that massage and other touch therapies are beneficial in cancer and palliative care, offering patients the benefit of non-clinical, caring touch at a point in their lives where touch is very limited.
Research generally neglects to look at touch in childhood, teenage years, young adults, adults, middle and older age. Maybe it is assumed that at these points in our lives we can actively seek touch for ourselves and are less dependent on others. This is not always the case, however. Many people live alone or, even if they live with family, friends or a partner, they may still lack positive nurturing touch. Many others may experience only negative touch and the effects of that are serious and long lasting. Some people do not receive sufficient positive touch in their early years and are therefore ill prepared to give or receive positive touch later in life. Many older people have lived lives rich in family, friends and hugs, but find themselves, later in life, alone, missing that experience of touch.
Touch helps us to:
- Make and enhance connections and relationships
- Develop social skills
- Communicate emotions
- Offer support and empathy
- Feel calm and reassured
- Boost our immune systems
- Reduce heart rate and blood pressure
- Reduce our experience of pain
- Feel comfort and happiness
- Reduce feelings of anger or frustration
- Reduce feelings of anxiety, depression or stress
In a year where we have been actively discouraged from touching anyone, not even a handshake, let alone a simple hug, the absence of touch has been all the more acute in so many people’s lives. An interesting article written in September 2019 looked at what it means to be ‘touch-starved’ and the serious health implications of lack of touch. This year I frequently see people on Facebook commenting on how much they miss a hug. So, if you are lucky enough to live with others, or to be in a support bubble with others, make sure that you do touch them, whether to hold their hand, touch their arm, a supportive gesture, or a hug. If that person is a teen or pre-teen who is a little less keen on hugs nowadays, they still need touch, maybe just sit a little closer on the sofa when you are watching tv, touch can be slight and short, just a touch on their arm, hand or shoulder is beneficial, even just being close to them can help.
For those you can’t touch at present, your presence in their lives is a form of non-physical touch. You can still touch their lives with a smile, a phone call, a helping hand, a chat in the street or over a cuppa (all-be-it over zoom), enjoying a walk together, or wrapped up warm with a hot drink.
If you are feeling ‘touch-starved’, there are simple things you can do to help yourself. Taking the time to really massage your scalp when you wash your hair, massaging in a body lotion each day, massaging your feet at the end of the day, giving yourself a manicure and/or pedicure, the feel of a warm bath, a hot mug of tea or of wrapping yourself in a cosy blanket or scarf can also help to give you the comforting benefits of touch. Stroking a pet is also beneficial as is having physical touch in nature, touching plants or trees, walking barefoot in the grass or feeling the sand between your toes on a beach.
Of course, going for a massage, reflexology or reiki treatment is also a fabulous way to enjoy the many benefits of positive touch.
PsychologicalScience.org June 2018 [Accessed 5th October 2020] https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/obsonline/harlows-classic-studies-revealed-the-importance-of-maternal-contact.html
Wikipedia [Accessed 5ht October 2020] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Spitz
The Benefits of Touch Therapy for Cancer. Mpls St Paul [online] 23rd September 2020 [Accessed 5th October 2020] https://mspmag.com/health-and-fitness/the-benefits-of-touch-therapy-for-cancer/#:~:text=It’s%20common%20for%20people%20with,system%20through%20touch%2C%20Saldana%20says.
What does it mean to be touch starved? Sharkey, L. September 2019 [accessed online 5th October 2020] https://www.healthline.com/health/touch-starved