I usually don’t afford myself the luxury to pamper myself but recently I had injured my neck fairly seriously so I relented by making an appointment with a massage therapist. Long before the therapist’s skillful, kneading hands had an opportunity to begin to do their work to heal the injured tissue, I couldn’t help but notice how reassuring it felt just to be touched at a time when I needed succor.
I have two pets at home who, as all pets do, require attention and tending to their welfare and well being well compensated by the joy and companionship they provide. Whenever I take one of them in my lap I cannot help but notice an immediate response on my part to breathe a deep sigh of relief and begin to relax.
Years ago my clinical psychotherapy practice included work with residents who lived in a skilled-nursing or residential-care facility. One of the first things I remember my supervisor in training encouraging me each time I visited with a resident to offer some kind of physical contact; it could be something as simple as a warm handshake or a reassuring stroke on the arm. The elderly are unfortunately the least likely to receive this kind of attention, especially in an institutional setting such as nursing homes where people are all too often shunned, neglected, or treated in perfunctory fashion.
The Healing Power Of Touch
Few things in life are at the same time both as important and sorely overlooked as the power and healing of touch. Our society shuns physical contact when it comes to daily interaction with other people. Yet touching is a powerful way to communicate. Matthew Hertenstein of DePauw University, Indiana, demonstrated in a series of studies that touch alone can communicate eight different kinds of emotion, such as anger, disgust, gratitude, and sadness, with up to 78% accuracy. The power of touch thus can influence our effects on other people and even success in life. For example, studies have shown how touch enhances tips for waitresses, cooperation from strangers, and camaraderie among teammates that led to greater success for their teams. Touch is also essential to the emotional bonds we establish throughout life, from the instinctual touch that anneals the vital connection between a mother and its infant to the lifelong bond that endures through a marriage or deep friendship. Moreover, touch communicates the strength of that relationship bond by how often that touch is reciprocated by one’s partner.
Not all touch is welcome or healing. Some cultures frown on touch more than others and mores can change over time. A touch initiated by a man is more likely to be received as unpleasant than that by a woman and we all know about the controversies raised by #metoo in which the relationships among touch, intention, and acceptability, have been reexamined.
The Power Of Touch In A Relationship
The power of touch to heal and establish bonds should bring to mind how important it is to tender our relationships with others, to become mindful about how important it is toward communicating our intention, and how necessary it is to live a life that maximizes our health and emotional well being. For those who are alone, single, or widowed, with fewer opportunities for intimate touch, it is even more important to become mindful about whether this need is being met in one’s life. Noticing whether and how we make physical contact with others, how much contact we have with others on a daily basis, and for those who are alone, realizing how pets can provide a vital connection, even getting a massage on a regular basis: Touch can make a vital difference in our lives.
Posted by Robert Hamm, Ph.D.
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Robert Hamm Ph.D