Touching people is a touchy subject today. We hear so much about unhealthy touch in the news – sexual abuse by members of the clergy (people who should be able to be trusted), pedophiles and rapists, domestic violence and sexual abuse in the workplace. The list goes on. Due to these things we become reticent to give healthy touch just in case people misunderstand our motivation. This is tragic because healthy touch is so important to all of us.
We have a biological need for touch that can be met only in contact with another human being. This was first discovered during the 19th century, when children who had been abandoned at birth and transferred to orphanages died by the thousands. They literally wasted away, despite the fact that they were fed, kept clean and protected from danger. Nearly 100 percent of the infants under the age of one died in U.S. foundling hospitals as late as 1920. What these children lacked was physical contact.
When this connection between life and touch was realised, doctors and nurses in many institutions cooperated in a plan to supply “mothering” for these children. It consisted of holding, stroking, speaking to the infant, and allowing significant periods of cuddling the child, especially at mealtimes. The results were dramatic and immediate. Infant mortality rates dropped within one year of adopting these touching practices.
Rene Spitz explored the development (or lack of development) of institutionalised children. In the 1945 study involving human babies, Spitz followed the social development of babies who, for various reasons, were removed from their mothers early in life. Some children were placed with foster families while others were raised in institutions. The babies raised in the institutionalised environment suffered seriously. More than a third died.
Other effects of lack of touch include self-destructive habits such as overeating, smoking, nail biting, pulling out hair, self-mutilation, compulsive sex, physical violence and aggressiveness, rape, and other forms of sexual abuse or dysfunction. Over anxiousness, unsatisfying relationships, unwillingness to attend to the needs of others, self-preoccupation, excessive shyness, the fear of reaching out, and the fear of sustained intimacy. The biggest problem that touch deprivation creates, however, is a sense of alienation from ourselves and isolation from others. We see this manifested in things like boredom with, and lack of energy for, life in general, the experience of being out of touch with or disconnected from the world.
Scientists have shown that the amount of body contact in our lives plays a vital role in our mental and physical development as infants and in our happiness and vigor as adults.
- Helps us deal with stress and pain
- Helps us form close relationships with other people
- Fights off disease and speeds recovery times from illness and surgery
- Slows heart rate and lowers blood pressure
- Reduces anxiety
- Brings positive changes in attitude
- Improves your outlook and helps you be more optimistic
All the various kinds of healthy touch send our brain the physical inputs it needs to make sense of the world. So, along with touching other people and pets, make time to explore different textures and touch sensations such as letting cool sand run through your fingers or taking a warm relaxing bath.
Matt Hertenstein, an experimental psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana has found that a friendly touch reduces stress and increases release of the oxytocin, also called the “cuddle hormone,” which promotes feelings of devotion, trust and bonding. Oxytocin levels go up with holding hands and hugging and lays the biological foundation and structure for connecting to other people. The surging of oxytocin makes you feel more trusting and connected. And the cascade of electrical impulses slows your heart and lowers your blood pressure, making you feel less stressed and more soothed. Remarkably, this complex surge of events in the brain and body are all initiated by a simple, supportive touch.
Recent studies from England pinpointed an area in the brain that becomes highly activated in response to friendly touch. It’s a region called the orbital frontal cortex located just above your eyes. It’s the same area that responds to sweet tastes and pleasing smells. A soft touch on the arm makes the orbital frontal cortex light up.
Almost 3000 years ago King David wrote, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14). He didn’t know the half of it. Modern science is now discovering how amazing God’s human creation really is and how we best interact with one another. Healthy touch is a vitally important part of that interaction. Jesus understood and practiced healthy touch. All through the gospels we see Jesus bringing healing to people by touching them. He welcome and embraced children, he demonstrated the full extent of his love for his closest friends by washing their feet, his closest friend John is pictured with his head resting on Jesus’ chest.
I encourage you to look for opportunities to give and receive healthy touch on a regular basis. You’ll benefit and so will others. Love your neighbour as yourself!