By Zoë Ross - Massage Therapist
I sat on a train to Devon last Summer and listened intently to a podcast by the brilliant and enthusiastic Dr Chatterjee who welcomed discussion over the power of touch and how it is fast becoming a diminishing sense.
I was reminded of this topic only yesterday when I called a patient (now friend) who has been self- isolating for over 6 weeks, he mentioned to me that he had not touched or been touched by anyone in that time, and how in a fleeting moment he felt saddened by this. He has a vast network of friendship groups who regularly ‘meet up’ via Zoom, and he has people willingly dropping food parcels and neighbours who check up on each other’s welfare, but it is not touch. It isn’t that instant sense of connection, or that soothing stroke, it isn’t the heartfelt warmth of a hug from a friend or partner, what we’re talking about here is a profound lack of positive touch.
As a Body Therapist I am naturally tactile, I struggle not to hug people, stroke my dogs, hold the hands of my nephews or just place a hand on a friend’s back when they look like they need support. I like to touch, so why is it so taboo. Why do people fear it, why are we nervous about embrace? As children, we yearn for this touch and studies suggest babies who are cuddled often, have better growth rates and improved immune systems. We look at the chubby cheeks of a baby and their huge inquisitive eyes and we instinctively wish to reach out and touch (or pinch!) affectionately of course. It is natural human behaviour, but we have made it not so. Touch is a language. One we learn very quickly as a child, a vital form of non-verbal communication. A Parent’s touch enhances attachment, it can signify security, clapping hands together in a playful manner encourages play and makes babies giggle and a firm squeeze when crossing the road can help express potential danger.
There are sadly too many times when we hear about the abuse of touch, the negative side to it, how it can used as a tool to make people feel fear, to immobilise them and bring about all sorts of mental and physical health concerns, impacting greatly on an individuals self-esteem, confidence in themselves and trust in others. This leaves people vulnerable and in a heightened state of stress.
It is fundamental for touch to be consensual. The speaking out on this subject has empowered many who felt they had no voice, but in its wake, it has left this vital human sense clouded, almost like a dirty secret, the sordid world of touch. Ironically it is the one sense people seem to think they can do without but as the Psychologist Tony Robbins suggests ‘ there is no real substitute for touch’ Without sight, people turn to touch to feel their way through life, without sound, people use visual cues but without touch-what? Making touch consensual is crucial but eradicating it from our lives could ultimately be dangerous. It has a power to soothe, heal and promote wellbeing….and should outweigh our fear of it.
Robbins also discusses a fascinating social experiment about how culturally touch is viewed very differently. A study in café’s around the world looked at physical interactions between people dining together, it gave a startling indicator as to the expectations of touch globally. In Puerto Rico for example, the average times people at a table touched was 200 per hour, in Paris this dropped to 40 times, again in New York just 5 times and sadly in London 0. Not once did the diners gathered (whether friends, family, colleagues) touch one another.
There is no denying that the power of positive touch can be profound, as a Therapist I know this to be true, the unique connection between a Patient and Therapist is symbolic of how enhancing touch can be. As you physically feel tension release under your hands and a trust building between you and them, the body responds to touch, and as the skin is the largest organ at approx. 2 metres it is indeed the pathway to touch. Touch, among other things, can reduce stress, heart rate and blood pressure. We are wired to experience touch, it is not a design flaw that we respond so well to it, from birth until the day we die, our need for physical contact remains
As we sit and re-evaluate many areas of our lives during this somewhat strange time, thought should certainly be given to touch, it’s power to heal, express emotion, and connect deeply with people. Think about the first friend or relative you long to hug and know that contact will reinforce your connection to one another and set off a wonderful dose of endorphins. It is like a daily dose of happy medicine! Do not shy away from connection, positive touch should be worked on and we should look to cultivate this once normality resumes. Do not underestimate that touch given positively and consensually, with true meaning, is a great gift.
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