Sunday, July 8, 2012

Healing Magic of Touch

In your touch is the gift of life and without it we die. For an infant this is true and for adults it can be psychologically and literally true. Within us live many personalities, and if they are not touched they die and take their body with them.

Bernie Siegel, MD

In the thirteenth century, Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II removed a group of infants from their families and put them in the care of nurses who were instructed to attend only to the infants’ most basic needs—the infants could be fed and bathed but not held, hugged or spoken to. It was Fredrick’s intent to see what language the babies would speak if they were raised generically, without benefit of touch or adult verbal stimulation. Unfortunately, Fredrick did not find his answer. All of the infants died before they were old enough to speak.

For centuries, mothers have instinctively known it works -- pick up young children and they'll stop crying... gently rub babies' backs and it's off to dreamland they go. Now scientists are also coming to recognize the power of touch -- and not just touch therapies such as reflexology, but simple acts such as giving a backrub, holding hands, sharing a hug or putting your arm around someone. With research demonstrating the healing power of touch, more hospitals are incorporating massage programs into care protocols for cancer and cardiovascular patients, among others.

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Modern Society and Touch Deprivation

There are at least four modern trends in our society taking most of the blame:


The age of technology has allowed us to interact with others around the world via satellites and microchips but has dehumanized our daily lives. In a recent poll Americans rated the cell phone as the device they hate the most, but can't live without. We interact more with our time-saving devices than we do with each other.

Children of busy mothers may often be "surrounded by plastic". From the day care center to the home environment, infants are "contained" in car seats, strollers and playpens. When mom is too tired or busy to attend to them, children may be plunked in front of the electronic babysitter, the TV. Contrast this to the child who is held all day, snuggled close in a baby carrier, or has the opportunity to interact and play freely with his environment.

Disconnected lifestyles

Urbanization, two career families and the loss of the extended family have led us to isolation.

Husband and wives, caught up in work and family obligations, are often too exhausted to give each other the affection needed. A recent Newsweek cover story focused on the "so-called epidemic of low-sex or no sex marriages in America."

We rarely know our neighbors or live close to parents and grandparents. We are suspicious of strangers and carefully guard our personal space when we meet new people. Only in small cities and towns in America do you find the connectedness and community needed to "keep in touch".

A Litigious Society

Touching someone can be a federal offense these days. With the new sexual harassment laws many people are afraid to extend a warm hug or a friendly touch. In addition, with the increase in child molestation, we must guard our children's safety and teach them the difference between good and bad touching. Unfortunately for our children, that means their caregivers must be especially guarded in showing them affection, even when appropriate.

Yes, certain laws still make it a crime for consenting adults to engage in various types of harmless physical touching. These laws appear to be carryovers from Puritanism, which H. L. Mencken defined as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy."

The media

Relaxed morals in mass media portray an unrealistic view of sexuality and relationships which can lead to inappropriate behavior and desires. We want what we see on the silver screen even if it is unattainable, further feeding our skin hunger.

To touch is to be human. It makes us feel valued and cared for. However, everyone is not comfortable with being touched. Some cultures and religions forbid touching someone other than a family member. When first meeting someone, take a clue from how they react to others and you will know if it is OK to approach. Just a pat on the shoulder or a touch on the hand is a caring gesture.

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Importance of Human Touch

Previous research has suggested that touch deprivation leads to aggression and violent behavior in animals, so it is quite understandable that living in our largely touch-deprived Western society can have negative consequences. It was these concerns that led researchers at the Touch Research Institute to examine how touch is treated differently in two cities with very different cultures -- Miami and Paris. In one study, published in Early Child Development and Care in 1999, Dr. Field and her colleagues measured how much affectionate touch preschoolers received from their parents on playgrounds and also the children's level of aggressive behavior. In Paris, they found there was more touch toward peers and parents by children and less aggression. In a separate study, researchers also observed that French adolescents -- raised with more affectionate touch -- were more affectionate and less physically and verbally aggressive with one another than American adolescents. This association does not imply or prove causation, but does make a case for closer examination with further research.

Dr. Field explained that the benefits of touch seem to stem largely from its ability to reduce levels of cortisol, a stress hormone manufactured by the adrenal glands. This was measured in two dozen studies. She said that touching with moderate-pressure (a firm handshake) stimulates activity in the vagus nerve, one of the 12 cranial nerves in the brain, which in turn slows the heart and decreases the production of stress hormones including cortisol.

To be touched by someone you care for is a sign of acceptance and helps to make us feel better. Touching can have a healing effect known as “soothing to the touch” which releases the calming peptide hormone called Oxytocin, secreted by the pituitary gland within the brain.

The release of Oxytocin through repeated touching can condition friends and family to want to be with each other even more. It helps us to create bonds with those we care for. Intimate loving couples just need to look at one another for the pituitary gland to automatically stimulate the release of Oxytocin to give them that fuzzy warm feeling.

The presence of the hormone estrogen is the key factor in the release of Oxytocin and the reason why females like to cuddle more so than males. Higher levels of estrogen increase empathetic nurturing qualities in women.

Other studies published in peer-reviewed journals, demonstrate that touch contributes to...
  • Decreased pain. Children with mild to moderate juvenile rheumatoid arthritis who were given massages by their parents 15 minutes per day for one month experienced less anxiety and lower cortisol levels. Over a 30-day period, parents, kids and their physicians reported less pain overall in the children.
  • Enhanced immune function. In studies, women with breast cancer and HIV patients showed a measurable increase in natural killer cells - part of a line of defense in the immune system against virus-infected cells and cancer cells after massage. They also experienced less anxiety and depression.
  • Happier, healthier babies. Preemies who were touched more while in the NICU gained more weight.
  • Less labor pain. Women in labor who received a backrub the first 15 minutes of every hour of labor reported less pain and made fewer requests for pain medications. Their labor was also shorter, on average.
  • Enhanced alertness and performance. Following massage, adults completed math problems in significantly less time and with fewer errors.

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Human Touch and Aging

The need for touch extends beyond the early developmental years. It is the first sense to develop in utero and the last to diminish as we die. Babies and children with loving parents are cuddled and kissed and touched. As a child ages he seeks to become more independent and may even resist too much lovin'. How many of us parents have mourned the day our children became too big to sit in our laps anymore? Boys, especially, are discouraged from showing too much affection. To be a man means to be strong and stoic and emotion is deemed a sign of weakness.

Adolescence is a time of self discovery and growing sexual awareness. As kids grow into teens they may seek sexual intimacy even when not emotionally ready because the need for touch is so strong. How many girls have had sex prematurely when all they really wanted was to be held? Compounding the problem, many parents will decrease physical contact with their teens because of fears of inappropriateness.

Maturing into adults we face a world that explodes with sexual images but discourages more than a friendly nod or a handshake in public. Sexuality is OK but intimacy is not.

As soon as people are getting older, starting living along in isolated big family homes, and out of the work environment, they became essentially at greatest risk of touch deprivation. The elderly and the disabled often have limited mobility and fears of victimization may prevent their venturing out. People with a terminal illness like HIV may have very little contact with another human being due to inherent fears of the disease. Although not as fulfilling as human contact, a pet may provide the bonding and comfort needed.

As was pointed earlier in the comparison between Paris and Miami environment, Americans are particularly suffering from a lack of intimacy with each other. Following a research project on touch around the world, social scientists rated the United States and Great Britain among the lowest touch countries studied. The "warmer" high-touch countries included Spain, France, Italy, and Greece.

Massage Therapy for Older Adults

According to Phyllis K. Davis, Ph.D., a Licensed Professional Counselor and author, “Touch is not just a pleasant stimulus but also a biological necessity.” It has been well documented that infants and children need nurturing touch in order to thrive, but the need for touch continues throughout life. Massage therapy is one of the ways and approaches for older adults to satisfy their needs in human touch.

Professional massage provides a safe and secure venue for having touch needs met. According to The Geriatric Massage Project (an institute that encourages and teaches the use of massage for seniors), “Massage can make life more enjoyable for the elderly by helping them to maintain their health and often to regain physical capabilities that seemed lost forever.”

Author Kelle Walsh states in Massage Magazine, “The elderly are often in mourning for spouses, pets, even for homes where they built their lives, and live with constant fear of dying alone. Massage therapy can ease physical discomfort from conditions such as arthritis, or osteoporosis, and help increase circulation to infrequently used muscles. It can also help those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or have had a stroke, as a means of communication. It also helps to reconnect the elderly with bodies that have long failed them.

Having a massage is one of the best ways to enjoy the wonderful benefits of physical touch. This therapy, which is known primarily for being able to relax both the mind and body, can bring a host of physiological and psychological effects in your health such as improvement of circulation, strengthening of the immune system, relaxation of tense muscles, reduction of spasms and pain, and improvement of range of motion, among many others.

Human-touch therapy includes modern, traditional and alternative methods known by a variety of names. The University of Maryland Medical Center states there are more than 100 different human-touch therapies. Physical therapy and chiropractic are examples of modern methods. Massage and acupuncture are traditional methods that have existed for centuries. Alternative methods, such as Rolfing and Touch for Health, combine modern and traditional therapies. These categories are flexible as evidenced by insurance companies using different labels for the same method. No matter the category or name, human-touch therapy can help with a variety of health and well being issues.

Touch therapy can help reduce negative influences of stress--physical and emotional. Pain, lowered mood and anxiety are all symptoms of stress. The University of Maryland Medical Center found that human touch therapies reduce certain stress-inducing hormones, such as cortisol, and release natural substances called endorphins in the body to reduce pain and elevate mood. Further, the touch therapies of spinal manipulation, acupuncture, and massage can and do ease pain and reduce depression--sometimes alone, sometimes in conjunction with other therapies.

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Not only Massage

However, it is important to note that massage is not the only way to experience the power of human touch. Even a simple kiss, hug, or a handshake can have positive psychological effects that can enhance overall health and facilitate healing and recovery.

On the physical level, human touch has the ability to lower blood pressure and reduce stress and tension. This is because a soothing touch can trigger the increase of oxytocin levels in the body, which gives a calming effect. When there is pain, a comforting human touch can alleviate the feeling and act as a numbing agent.

When it comes to emotional benefits, human touch like a comforting hand squeeze, a gentle tap on the back, or a reassuring hug can help intensely in stress management by calming and easing a person’s nerves. It is no wonder people feel good about themselves when they give or receive a hug. It is a sign that someone cares for them. Some studies have shown that people who receive sufficient physical affection (especially the non-sexual type) are less prone to depression and unhealthy habits such as drinking and smoking.

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Healthy Touch Tips

In general, hugs, handshakes, a hand on the shoulder or a comforting rub on the back are examples of appropriate touch.

~ Make sure the person you desire to touch consents before you proceed.

~ You may verbally ask to touch and receive a verbal consent.

~ You may extend your arms to hug a loved one and they may extend their arms to receive.

~ You may extend a hand to offer a hand shake and the person reciprocates.

~ You may move toward a person who appears in need of a comforting hand on the shoulder -  Look in their eyes and watch their body language for consent.

~ If your touch is rejected, don't take it personally!

Sources and Additional Information:


Co-Author: Tanya Pekker, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in San Mateo, California


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