The word ‚touch‘ has a peculiar role for us these days. To talk of touching someone easily sounds transgressive, naughty, sexual, or maybe even perverse. Touch belongs to certain worlds, certain activities, certain professions. When I say, completely dead-pan, that my work involves touching people, even when the person I’m talking to tries to control their reaction, an amused eyebrow can’t help but lift, a smile plays around their lips, and jokes and puns are quickly forming themselves. On the other hand, to talk of ‚being touched‘ carries a different meaning, which sits a bit more comfortably with us: being moved or deeply affected by someone or something.
My work sits on the border between these two meanings: I work with physical touch, and I also touch and am touched by the deep issues in people’s lives. In fact, the two meanings are not so far apart from each other. A quick look in the dictionary hints that to touch is to come into contact with something or to perceive something. We could think of it as coming into either physical or emotional contact with someone, and I would argue from my work that the division between those two things is fairly insubstantial. The world we live in today suffers a lack of the full spectrum of touch understood in this way. With our attention divided and jumping all over the place (phones, laptop, adverts, selfies, status updates), the depth to which we actually perceive one another is often pretty shallow. In terms of physical touch, there’s often a lot of space between us, an internet’s worth of space, for example, and the role of touch stays limited to only a few spheres.
Touch, or being touched, is actually hugely important for our well-being. Neuroscientist David Linden’s recent book, ‚Touch: the science of hand, heart and mind‘, argues the case for this. Here’s a review of it in the Guardian, and another review in the Huffington Post. He argues why touch is so important for the mental and physical health of humans. In fact, many studies have started to tap into the ways that touch is important for us to be content and well.
It is now widely researched and recognised that touch is essential for human development. Parents‘ touch is literally crucial for a child’s development; it is not optional. Studies with babies have shown how in this time, close physical contact (especially including breastfeeding) is actually necessary for survival, and is incredibly vital in infant brain development.
Touch changes our social interactions, whether a pat on the back from a colleague, a touch on the knee during conversation with a friend, or a stroking touch from a romantic partner. A couple of favourite examples are that sports teams who use a lot of celebratory touch with each other perform better, and that business people who use more touch in meetings are more likely to behave in a trusting way. People talk about touch as a kind of social glue in our interactions; touch can make people calmer, more confident and trusting. Dr. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at Berkeley, writes: „the science of touch convincingly suggests that we’re wired to—we need to—connect with other people on a basic physical level.“
The benefits of touch for adults‘ health are also starting to be acknowledged, by research of what’s going on biochemically. Touch has been shown to stimulate higher levels of oxytocin, the ‚love hormone‘, which is linked with human bonding, socializing and maternal instincts, and helps alleviate anxiety and fear and is critical in trust-building. Oxytocin has also been found to have a positive influence on inflammation and wound healing. Touch has also been found to stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the ‚feel-good feeling‘, and also serotonin, another neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure. As well as stimulating oxytocin release, touch also reduces the levels of the ’stress hormone‘, cortisol, the combined effect of which is to help reduce the risk of heart disease, as well as boost the immune system, and to reduce fatigue and depression. Pretty amazing, right?
These findings have provoked some people to advocate the importance of hugging for well-being and how we should hug more everyday! People are starting to recognise the importance of touch for healing, although of course many healing methods involving touch have been around for centuries. It’s just that now scientific research is now catching on. The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine says it has carried out more than 100 studies into touch and found evidence of significant effects, including reduced pain, better sleep patterns, decreased autoimmune disease symptoms, lower level of depression and anxiety and lower stress hormone levels, lowered glucose levels in children with diabetes, and improved immune systems in people with cancer.
Massage therapy has been shown to reduce aversion to touch and to decrease anxiety, depression and cortisol levels in women who have been sexually or physically abused. It decreases diastolic blood pressure, anxiety and cortisol (stress hormone) levels. Bulimic adolescent girls receiving massage therapy showed an improved body image, decreased depression and anxiety symptoms, decreased cortisol levels and increased dopamine and serotonin levels. In a study of children with ADHD, touch sensitivity, attention to sounds and off-task classroom behavior decreased and relatedness to teachers increased after massage therapy. Massage therapy also decreased the anxiety, depression and stress hormone levels of children diagnosed with PTSD, who survived Hurricane Andrew. The type of touch of course makes a difference. Different forms of touch have been tested for their effects: a slow, affectionate touch is linked to easing anxiety and to building an understanding and awareness of one’s body.
Since my work revolves around using touch to work with people, these findings look great to me. But it can even go further though. In sessions, I try to find the right touch for every moment. The kind of touch that allows one person to let go a muscle they’ve tensed for years might not have the same effect on someone else. Someone who has built up making themselves defensive and proving themselves, or experiencing a lot of pressure, might need a really strong touch to kind-of break through that, and allow them to stop doing it. For someone else, perhaps it is the lightest of touches that lets them at all notice how much their holding an area tense in an effort to control, and then let that go. It might be this lightest of touches that lets someone finally experience the anger they never did in the past when they tried to keep everything harmonious. It might be a strong touch that lets someone finally feel how painful it was when they were ignored and tried to be strong so as not to feel it.
What I’m saying is, touch is even more advanced than these studies suggest. Different bodies need different touches at different times, and to achieve different kinds of experiences. More than just releasing this cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones, it can be the gateway that allows someone to have an experience they never managed before.