Someone once said that a human being requires a minimum of four good hugs a day to remain sane and whole.
And, in the case of babies, it seems, even to survive. Well into the 20th century, the death rate for infants under one year of age in various foundling institutions in the US was nearly 100 percent. About half of these deaths were caused by a disease that came to be called ‘marasmus’ (a Greek word for ‘wasting away’). It was a disease characterized by a gradual loss of muscle and strength for no apparent reason, and despite adequate nutrition and healthcare. And this was happening in the ‘best’ foundling homes; in contrast, babies in the poorest families were able to overcome bad hygiene and other environmental handicaps and thrive. The difference, researchers finally found, was the motherly love they received, and which the foundling babies lacked. Quick on the uptake, Western hospitals began introducing a ‘mothering’ approach, making it a rule that every baby was talked to, picked up, held, cuddled and carried around. The results were dramatic: the infant mortality rate fell to 10 percent.
What explains these amazing outcomes? Infants are not fully developed at birth. They need help in every way to survive. That help includes physical stimulation on an ongoing basis. Infant massage, one of the oldest traditional practices in Eastern cultures, including India, provides that stimulation, helping to tone the respiratory, circulatory and gastro-intestinal systems (in addition to providing the cues so necessary for the emotional health of the newborn).
But the need for touching doesn’t end in babyhood. Right through the teen and adult decades, and well into the years of seniority, we all instinctively know the calming, nurturing power of touch. Without conscious awareness, we stroke and rub areas of our own bodies that hurt. Few sensual experiences rival a full-body massage for sheer demented pleasure and relaxation. Healthy friendships also involve touch that is nurturing and comforting without being erotic. And there’s nothing more natural or ‘human’ than reaching out to touch someone who’s in pain and distress.
Skin, which forms a barrier between what’s inside us and what’s outside, also serves as the avenue to our most intimate physical and psychological selves. And touch is the conduit. But touch does more than only intensifying communicated emotions. We now have a mound of research findings that resoundingly vindicate that golden oldie about “the touch that heals”. The health-related benefits that touch has been found to confer include these:
» Lowers blood pressure
» Relieves depression
» Eases muscle tension and body aches
» Subdues heart irregularities
» Enhances immune function
In our own country, the power of the loving touch was demonstrated on the larger social canvas by none other than Mother Teresa, now elevated to sainthood. Even the media images of her love – holding a child, laying her hands in compassion upon the dying – reinforce that it is “actions” that transfuse love more than “words”. This was underscored by an intriguing Harvard study in which levels of IgA, a germ-fighting chemical in saliva, were measured before and after a group of people watched different films: a Nazi war film, a short film on gardening and a documentary on Mother Teresa. Putting the issue beyond doubt, IgA levels rose sharply after the Mother Teresa film was viewed; no changes occurred in response to the other films.
It seems something deep inside us responds positively to the power of the loving touch. Neuro-scientists explain it thus: Our skin has millions of nerve cells. When they are stimulated by touch, physical energy is transformed into nervous energy that passes from the skin to the spinal cord and brain. No one knows exactly how it takes place. Suffice it to say that the process involves the intricate, split-second operation of a complex system of signals between nerve cells in the skin and the brain.
How to touch and be touched
You may be convinced of the very real benefits of touching, you may want to reach out and touch – but what if, like countless other people, you are uncomfortable with touch? If touching does not come naturally to you, it could be because physical affection was not a big part of your growing-up experience, or may have been actually discouraged in the family you grew up in. Personality also plays a role: studies show that extroverts tend to touch more in their interactions with others.
» Whatever the particular cause(s) for your lack of comfort with physical touch, if you would like to become more at ease with touching and being touched, begin with small steps. First, work at becoming comfortable with the notion of touch itself. No better way than a self-massage. Whether the lucky recipient is your forehead, neck, back or calves, this breaking-in kind of experience will familiarize you with the feel of skin-to-skin and after some “practice”, you’ll find you’ve moved into a relative comfort zone where touch is concerned.
» When you’re ready to move into the world outside, you may find it less awkward if you begin with non-adults, even better if they are unknown to you. For instance, you might volunteer to spend occasional time at a local orphanage. Plenty of opportunities there to hug, cuddle and rock.
» Now for the world of adults. Again, begin with small touch gestures: a proffered handshake when you’re introduced to someone, a friendly or complimentary pat on a person’s back, a light arm squeeze in sympathy, a high five as a celebratory gesture or even as a greeting. When you’re talking to someone, one of the best ways to establish rapport is to touch that person on the arm, somewhere between the elbow and the shoulder. There doesn’t have to be an emotional aspect to the interaction for the touch to be meaningful.
Of course, it is always wise to assess a person’s preferences and aversions before you reach out with any gesture of physical affection or caring. Men, for instance, tend to be standoffish when it comes to hugs. Taps on the shoulder or elbow touches are often a good starting point.
» As you begin to feel comfortable with this kind of transient touching, take the experience one level further. Start looking for daily opportunities to increase touch – in frequency and duration. For example, tousle your spouse’s messy morning hair from a place of love and affection, kiss your children goodbye when they leave for school.
» Affectionate touching can help a child develop into a loving, caring adult, so spend more “touching” time with your children. Snuggle with them while watching television. Tackle them just for the fun of it. Rather than having them sit beside you when you read them a story, have them sit in your lap. Also, it’s a good decision, at least for the first two years, to have your child sleep with you. It may make the bed a little crowded, but it makes for a wonderful daily spell of togetherness – even when you’re out flat.
» Hold a sick friend’s hand when you talk, and even when you don’t have anything to say.
To receive touch:
» Treat yourself to a manicure and / or a pedicure, or to a hair wash and styling at a salon.
» Have a therapeutic massage. Ensure, however, that your masseur has received proper training. If massage is performed too forcefully on fragile people, bone fractures and other internal injuries are possible.
Those with special health conditions such as pregnancy, open wounds, sensitive skin, vein thrombosis, or major illness such as cancer, need to consult with their doctor before undertaking any kind of therapeutic touch treatment.
» You don’t always need a masseur to get a massage. You can give yourself one. Self-massage techniques abound, and you’ll easily find several that incorporate the best soothing rubs and pressure-point applications that massage has to offer.
Here’s a simple one to get you started. It’s a good de-stresser for the lower back.
Stand up and put your hands on your waist, with your thumbs behind you and fingers facing forward.
Gently press your thumbs into the muscles at either side of the spine – but be careful not to press on the spine itself.
Keep your thumbs pressed in while you move in a very tiny motion – up, down, and around in a tiny circle. Spend extra time where you find a tender point – making sure not to cause pain.
Move your thumbs gradually, an inch at a time, up either side of the spine as far as your hands can comfortably reach. Then gradually move back down your back and press on the bony surface of the sacrum (the base of the spinal column).
» Having a pet is the next best thing to human touching (unless your pet happens to be a porcupine or a sea urchin, in which case Touch quickly mutates into Ouch.)
» Finally, even if you feel you are not at the receiving end of adequate touch in your life, there is this: Research finds that reaching out and touching another person is its own reward – bringing tactile pleasure and acting as a kind of “social glue” that bonds people to each other.
Touching is a learned skill. We get better with practice. The most important thing is to make a start.
(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, works as a counseling therapist)