The word ‘touch’ has peculiar associations these days, and yet touch is vital to both our psychological and physical well-being. To talk of touching someone easily sounds transgressive, naughty, sexual, perverse. Touch belongs to certain worlds, activities, professions. When I tell people that my work is touching people, even when the person I’m talking to tries to control their reaction, a joke plays around the contours of their face and I can see jokes and puns quickly forming themselves on their lips. 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 people’s attention divided and jumping all over the place (phones, social media, adverts, selfies etc), 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 and well-being

In fact, touch and being touched are hugely important for our well-being. Neuroscientist David Linden’s recent book, Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind, argues the case for why touch is so important for the mental and physical health of humans. He explains how touch is processed by our brains by both a sensory pathway (communicating things like pressure and vibration) and also another pathway that processes social and emotional information using different sensors in the skin. This is why the emotional context of the ‘same’ kind of touch makes a huge difference to how we actually feel it. Here’s a review of Linden’s book in the Guardian, and another review in the Huffington Post. Indeed, many studies lately have started to tap into the ways that touch is important for us to be content and well.

Touch and human development

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It is now widely researched and recognised that touch is essential for healthy infant development. Parents’ touch is literally crucial for a child’s development; it is not optional. Studies with babies have shown how close physical contact (especially including breastfeeding) is actually necessary for survival, and is incredibly vital in infant brain development. Studies show that loving touch is essential in the creation of a secure sense of self, as well as a sense of ownership of one’s body or being comfortable in one’s own skin. A lack of touch, or the right kinds of touch during infant development, can lead to psychiatric, social and emotional difficulties, as well problems with your immune system and digestive system, and obesity, type-two diabetes and heart disease.

Social confidence and trust

Touch has a big influence on our social interactions, whether a pat on the back from a colleague, a touch on the knee during conversation with a friend, or the touch of a lover or partner. A couple of my favourite examples here 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. Some recent research has even shown that we are able, with a very high degree of accuracy, to sense other people’s emotions via touch (by one person communicating an emotion to a blindfolded stranger through touch): this particular experiment tested anger, fear, disgust, love gratitude, sympathy, happiness and sadness. Touch acts like a kind of social glue in our interactions; it can make people calmer, and 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 physical health are also starting to be shown on a biochemical level. Touch has been shown to stimulate higher levels of oxytocin, the so-called ‘love hormone’, which is linked with human bonding, socializing and maternal instincts. Oxytocin also helps alleviate anxiety and fear, and is critical in trust-building; it basically gives the message ‘everything is okay’.

Healing and relaxation

Various studies have started to show 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. Oxytocin has been found to have a positive influence on wound healing and reducing inflammation. 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. Another effect is that touch reduces levels of cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’, which, when combined with increased oxytocin level, helps 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! 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 health benefits, including reduced pain, better sleep patterns, decreased autoimmune disease symptoms, lower levels of depression and anxiety, lower stress hormone levels, lowered glucose levels in children with diabetes, and improved immune systems in people with cancer. This is a stunning list.

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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 behaviour 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.

Touch therapy: more than gentle stroking! 

It’s not all about going directly to the happy hormones, though. Since my work revolves around using touch to work with people in a therapeutic way, these findings look great to me. But it can even go further than touch itself being the therapeutic device, as if there is a kind of touch (which always appears as slow, gentle touch) that is therapeutic, and a kind that isn’t. Think of touch like talking; it is, after all, just another form of communication. Different people need different kinds of touch at different moments.

For some people who have managed to effectively shut down their emotions, by somehow closing themselves off, it can often be that a very strong (often painful) touch allows them to wake up, to feel alive again, to feel themselves again, to not shut the world out. For some people who have been living on a very high state of alert, and tensing in a way that feels like keeping everything in control so that it doesn’t fall apart, it could be that the lightest of light touches enables them to finally relax and come to the sensation that everything is actually okay. And these are just a couple of examples.

Sometimes getting to a usually unknown experience, like sensing your boundaries or anger, needs a different kind of touch than gentle stroking…

Often, letting go of the fixed responses we’ve developed over the years doesn’t just lead straight to a happy, oxytocin-flooded well-being feeling. Usually we developed these fixed responses because we didn’t know how to handle particular feelings, like feeling scared, helpless, hurt, ashamed, angry…. all of our favourite emotions. When we let go of those responses, different emotions often bubble up to the surface. My work is all about letting someone experience those emotions. It’s about encouraging those emotions to be there, rather than soothing them and making them go away.

The kind of touch you need to encourage someone to finally experience anger, rage or fear, is not necessarily the gentle stroke that therapeutic touch is supposed to entail. Sometimes it helps someone to push against me really strongly and experience what this feels like. Sometimes you need a very firm hand on the chest in order to feel an old grief. In both of those situations, light stroking might drive someone mad, and it might not allow those old emotions to move in the way they need to in order for someone to move past them. Because usually when someone has let that emotion actually be there, then at some point it passes and another state comes. And then comes the amazing feeling of having released something, of being more oneself, being much more calm and powerful and grounded and confident.

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, and break out of what was holding them back.