Our skin is our largest organ, and it can be very sensitive and responsive. The warmth of a hand held, the sensation of a soft cheek against ours, arms wrapped around shoulders in embrace... they can all go a long way toward expressing our affection for someone. But touch can actually give more than a momentary tingle or a second of solace; touch can comfort and heal.
The effect of a touch depends, of course, upon the situation. A touch from someone can be relaxing or reassuring, off-putting or gentle, soothing or stimulating. Touch can also bond us together in ways that transcend words or in situations in which words may not help. Take babies, for instance. In one study it was found that fathers who gave their infants daily bedtime massages displayed more enjoyment and warmth with their child. In another, babies given a blood test were either swaddled in blankets or held, skin-to-skin, by their mothers. The babies being hugged had lower heart rates and cried 82% less than those left wrapped and lying in their cribs.
Touch's comfort can extend to older kids, too. After receiving massage sessions, adolescents with ADHD expressed feelings of happiness, and their teachers noted a decrease in the adolescents' fidgeting and off-task activities. Even self-massage has benefits, as proven by a study of people trying to deal with the cravings and anxiety associated with quitting smoking. When they felt the urge to smoke, test subjects were advised to rub their hands together or stroke their ear lobes. Rubbed away with the tension was the urge to light up.
Some might argue that touch and massage just distract us from our aches or anxieties. But what to make of research that links massage therapy to decreased blood pressure in adults with hypertension or to the improved immune function in women with breast cancer? Some research suggests that people who are deprived of touch early in life may have a tendency toward violent or aggressive behaviour later, and research in rats has found that rats with a strong mothering instinct (measured by licking and grooming their babies) were more likely have babies that showed a strong mothering instinct.
So, is touch simply a pleasant, soothing diversion? Is it mind over matter, or something more? No matter what the case, embrace the power of touch and invite it into your life:
- Go in for the rubdown. Even if you don't have aches and pains, book a visit to a licensed massage therapist. Hopefully you'll leave more relaxed.
- DIY massage. If you're shy about stretching out for a massage therapist, try self-massage techniques, like rubbing your hands together to warm them and then cupping them over your closed eyes. Feel the calm wash over you as your eyes and facial muscles relax.
- Conduct some hug research. When you greet a friend or family member, go in for an embrace rather than a handshake or nod. Sample a few different varieties of hug - arms around the waist, hands on the shoulder blades. Linger in the hug a little and really relish the sensation of closeness.
- Touch is an all-ages activity. Babies can benefit from gentle touch and massage, but the need and desire for human contact doesn't dwindle as we age. Remember older relatives and friends, especially those who live on their own or who have lost their husbands or wives.