The Importance of Touch

By Beverley Anne Star
and Sara Joy David, Ph.D.
Published in Health Science, Tampa, Florida

Learn why gentle touch is so important to good health.

Touching and being touched in ways that help us to feel appreciated and cared for is an essential ingredient to an optimal health care program. Parents soothe and nurture children by stroking, cuddling, rocking, and hugging them. Children invite such contact as part of their daily diet, both to meet their basic acceptance needs and for comfort when they are frightened.

The same is true for adults. Gentle, soothing touch, at an appropriate time, from an appropriate trusted person can be a very effective antidote to the bodily tension induced by daily interpersonal conflicts, noise assault, and other challenges associated with life on Earth.

Healthy lifestyle makes a difference

Those who choose to eat well, exercise, rest, and obtain a sufficient amount of fresh air and sunshine daily, are courageous people willing to defy destructive peer pressure. The choice to be healthy is often undermined by family members, business associates, and acquaintances who feel threatened by it. How much better it would be if they felt inspired by our efforts to break free of the social conditioning that encourages people to overwork, eat junk food, and become passive couch potatoes, television and internet junkies.

We live in a world where conformity is the norm. It takes courage to be oneself in a world where parents, teachers, peers, and the media often join forces to try to produce “carbon copies” of the “approved” personality.

In response to these interpersonal attacks and lack of support, our bodies can tighten and move out of alignment. Similar tensing can occur in response to loud noises such as police, ambulance and fire fighters’ sirens, road and construction crews, lawn mowers and leaf blowers, automobile and truck motors, and the blaring music that has become so commonplace.

Respecting boundaries

There is no substitute for the gentle, loving touch of someone who cares.

The body registers noise pollution as assaultive.The automatic tightening of muscles to armor (protect) and defend themselves produces sensations that range from mild discomfort to extreme pain . Gentle, appropriate touch can help the body to relax without more intrusive intervention. Caring touch can restore equilibrium and balance.

All such touch must be exchanged in a manner that respects the boundaries of the persons receiving and giving the touch. In a touch-phobic society, where many individuals are unaccustomed to physical contact, it may take a while for touch to feel welcome and natural. In a society where large numbers of people have been sexually abused and/or otherwise physically (and verbally) harassed in childhood and adulthood, touch may even come to be associated with feelings of invasion. However, just as we can reclaim our taste buds – jaded by excess use of spices, sauces, and other stimulants – we can re-educate our nerve endings to enjoy gentle, appropriate touch.

Getting off to a good, healthy start!

Scientific studies confirm the importance of human touch in the development of healthy babies.

Dr. Rene Spitz first published his findings in 1945 that established that gentle touch is necessary for the good health of babies.

Babies who were raised in orphanages where staff sizes were so small that they were not held and cuddled suffered adverse health effects. Some babies literally”withered away” and died. Numerous subsequent studies confirmed these findings.

Later it was found that babies born prematurely who were kept in incubators but not touched or stroked failed to thrive.

Today it is common practice for both hospital staff and parents to set aside an ample amount of time for touching, tickling, and stroking premature babies.This practice results in healthier babies.

Learning from children

One of the reasons that children appeal to and delight so many adults is that children provide some socially sanctioned outlet for the need for human touch. In the long run, however, adults and children alike are harmed by the restrictions on touch that displace onto children, needs that would be better met by other adults. Some children end up feeling smothered. Children sense the difference between nurturing touch that meets their needs, and touching that is a disguised way of meeting the adult’s needs. They avoid the latter whenever possible.

We recently observed two dapper looking men approaching the entrance of a restaurant. The younger man, in his forties, gently and tenderly assisted the older man, in his nineties. As he opened the door to the cafe, he placed his hand affectionately and lightly upon the elder’s back. Once inside, they sat beside each other and the younger fellow read the newspaper aloud. It was moving to observe them sitting side by side, their shoulders touching, obviously enjoying their outing together. It was refreshing to witness such a gentle, natural interaction, especially since touching seems to be particularly taboo for many men. It is important to recognize how much the hunger for food is a displacement for other hungers. The hunger to connect, the hunger to be known, the hunger for acceptance, the hunger for nurturing touch, when directly filled, all reduce the sensation of hunger for food.

Expressing feelings

Often, gentle touch creates the safety that allows stifled feelings to surface. This can feel scary at first. However, when expressing and releasing feelings becomes part of our regular self-care routine, we become appreciative and welcoming of these opportunities.

The English language reflects the link between physical touch and expressing emotions. We speak of videos, plays, and movies that move us deeply as “touching.” Whenever we have a deep, heartfelt response to an interaction or set of circumstances, we describe ourselves as “touched” by the events.

Virginia Satir, a renowned family therapist, urged everyone she knew to give and receive a minimum of 12 hugs each day.The enormous market of cuddly teddy bears, rabbits, cats, dogs, and other stuffed toys is another indicator of how important it is to attend to the need to touch. Soft cotton, silk, velour, and satin clothing sometimes comforts the wearer in a similar manner. These may offer some temporary comfort, but there is no substitute for the gentle, loving touch of a warm palm on a shoulder, forehead or back.