Excerpt from the transcript of my February 2, 2012 radio show episode on A Fine Time for Healing. To listen to the show in it’s entirety, please visit The Power of Human Touch
In today’s age of high tech communication, there is major missing factor—human touch. Nature has designed us to connect with people on a physical level. Our need to touch and be touched is essential; as necessary to human survival as the need for food and shelter. This subtle, wordless form of communication is the first language we learn. Momentary touches such as an arm around someone’s shoulder, a pat on the back, touching someone’s arm, or a high five can communicate emotions clearly and rapidly; they can be more effective than words or any our of other senses. Touch is fundamental to human bonding, emotional development and wellbeing, and physical health.
The average human adult has about twenty square feet (two square meters) of skin containing tens of thousands of nerve endings and sensory receptors. It is our body’s largest organ. Our skin tells us what is going on around us as well as what is happening inside our bodies.
When the sensory receptors in your skin are stimulated, the feel-good hormones oxytocin and dopamine, and the pain relieving hormone serotonin are released; the stress hormone cortisol is decreased. There are physiological reasons for the comfort and relaxation you get from a simple hug. A hug stimulates sensory nerve fibers in your skin that send a signal to the vagus nerve in the brain. This nerve tells your body to slow down your heart rate, reduce your blood pressure, and calm you down.
The benefits of touch begin the moment we are born. We first become acquainted with the world through the skin to skin contact we have with our mothers. A newborn needs the stimulation of touch to build neural connections between their skin and their brain. Holding, cuddling, and breast-feeding (if possible) a baby are crucial to their development. The messages a baby receives through touch are extremely important to their future wellbeing. Study after study has confirmed this. The touch an infant receives from their caregivers teaches them how to explore the world around them and define their relationship to it. As children grow up they continue their need to touch and be touched.
Young children rush to the sides of their parents when they come home wanting a hug and a kiss, or wanting to be held. Children love to crawl into their parents’ laps and hold their hands. The physical contact makes them feel secure, loved, and cared for. A parent’s touch can magically take away a child’s fears and worries. And there are actual emotional and physical healing benefits to rubbing or kissing a child’s boo-boo, beyond the placebo effect.
Many studies have been done on the health benefits of pet ownership. Petting or cuddling an animal can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and help with depression. Petting causes endorphins, chemicals in the body that suppress pain, to be released, and levels of oxytocin have been show to rise in both the animal and the owner within three minutes of the physical contact. It has been shown that physical contact with a pet can actually improve the survival rates of heart attack victims, and hospice patients who like animals find great comfort in petting them.
Without being aware, we have all sent healing to animals and other people through our touch. Every human being has the ability to transmit healing energies to others through their hands. The effectiveness of the healing depends on the capacity of one’s body to contain and channel it. But healing energy techniques can be taught to anyone who is interested in learning.
For thousands of years China has used acupressure, a technique based on the principles of acupuncture, to promote wellness and treat disease. The theory is that our bodies have twelve major meridians that connect specific organs or networks of organs. This network organizes communication throughout the body. When one of these meridians is blocked or out of balance, dis-ease can occur. By touching points along particular energy meridians with gentle pressure, these blockages are opened up and the body is restored to health and balance. I have relied on Chinese medicine to keep my body in balance for twenty-one years. In my opinion there is not a holistic or traditional medical therapy out there that is better.
The Japanese use a form of touch therapy that is based on traditional Chinese medicine and is similar to acupressure and acupuncture called Shiatsu. It also uses pressure points along meridians to balance out the flow of energy. Another Japanese touch therapy technique and form of spiritual healing is called Reiki. Reiki is based on the idea that we have a spiritually guided life force energy coursing through our bodies that gives us life. Reiki, administered by the laying on of hands, treats the whole person, body, mind, spirit, and emotion. It reduces stress, relaxes the body, and promotes feelings of peace and wellbeing. Reiki is also effective when used in conjunction with traditional medical therapies, as it can relieve side effects and help the body to recover.
It has been found that when practitioners use a technique called “therapeutic touch,” a modern day interpretation of several ancient healing practices, they are able to relieve pain. Therapeutic touch is a process of moving hands above the surface of the body, barely touching the skin, and exchanging energy.
Another touch therapy that we are all familiar with is massage. Massage therapy is known to be effective in relieving pain and relaxing muscles, but it is just as effective in reducing stress and promoting the well-being of our bodies and minds. After a massage, levels of endorphins increase creating an overall feeling of wellness and a minimized perception of pain. The stress hormone cortisal drops and there is a reduction in the hypothalamic area of the brain which controls our fight and flight response. Regular massage helps to improve the circulatory, lymphatic, immune, and nervous systems. It improves mental focus and alertness, promotes relaxation, and eases depression.
Unlike sight, hearing, taste, and smell, touch does not lose its potency as we grow older. In fact the need to touch and be touch increases with age. We often see elderly people patting each others’ hands. The elderly need touch as much as infants do. Many elderly people are lonely and depressed after losing spouses and friends. In addition to feeling isolated, lacking social interaction, and losing their independence, they miss the connection of human touch.
No other form of communication is as universally understood as touch. Whether sighted or blind, hearing or deaf, male or female, touch defines our world. We are never too young or too old to be touched. Through touch we express affection, appreciation, compassion, and support to others. Through touch we build interpersonal bonds. No other sense is as vital to our physiological health as touch is; we need touch as much as we need food and water. A compassionate touch of our hand or a reassuring hug can take away our fears, soothe our anxieties, and fill the emptiness of being lonely.
Hug your family, hug your children, hug your friends, and hug your pets. There is no better way to give love to others and receive it at the same time. Volunteer to help with animals, children, the elderly, the sick, and the dying. Your touch can make all the difference in their world.