If you think back on your week, what were your experiences with touch? Maybe you hugged someone you love, gave your son or daughter a high-five or pat on the back for a good grade, maybe you placed your hand on someone’s shoulder while they grieved or dealt with a difficult situation, or shook hands after a work meeting. Maybe you didn’t really touch anyone at all.
Chances are there are even forms of physical expression that are recurrent on a daily basis. Without using any words all of these scenarios demonstrate how touch, or the lack there of, can be a powerful form of communication, self-expression and a most basic form of humanity. Why, then, does our society err on the side of touch deprivation? What can we do to normalize this innate human need? Most importantly, when did it become ok to stop touching each other?
Before really exploring these pressing questions, let’s first discuss what touch is and how we can benefit from it. We all can reap the benefits in many ways if we are aware of them and mindfully choose to incorporate intentional touch into our lives more regularly.
An important distinction to make here is that there are many forms of touch. Our society seems to blur the lines and push the limits of some forms, and, unfortunately, this creates a certain stigma around touch. We are flat out told directly and indirectly NOT to touch. Don’t touch the opposite gender for fear of sexualizing touch. Don’t touch the same gender because that implies homoerotic tendencies. Don’t touch yourself because it’s bad to feel pleasure in any form especially from yourself. Don’t touch strangers because that’s sexual abuse. What, then, CAN we touch?
Massage therapy has been a target for years as “massage parlors” desecrate its reputation and those who practice it. I know I don’t just speak for myself when I say that sometimes it feels like a fight to normalize my profession and disassociate sexual behavior and touch from massage therapy. If more people were educated on the healing benefits of touch, especially massage, more people would feel comfortable seeking out the healing modality. Touch does not always have to be sexual. In fact, touch can be incredibly intimate without initiating any sexual behavior. Of course, there is nothing wrong with expressing how we feel in a consensual sexual way. What I am advocating for, however, is non-sexual, safe, necessary, intuitive and instinctual touch.
There is a substantial amount of scientific evidence that proves we need touch to not only survive but to thrive. One well-known study found that premature babies who are incubated that received three sessions of touch per day 15-minutes for 5-10 days gained weight 47% faster than babies who were left alone. Not because they were fed more, but because of the affect touch had on their metabolism. The longer the mother did not touch the baby, the slower the metabolism, the less nutrients needed, ultimately leading to stunted growth. The more the baby was touched the more it was stimulated, thriving in its less-than-ideal environment. It is basic survival instinct.
What other ways can we benefit from touch?
A healthy sense of self
There is evidence from a recent study that suggests a lack of touch has been linked to body image issues, unexplained pain and eating disorders. Healthy touch from a loved one (especially during younger developmental years) may increase ability to construct a positive outlook about their own bodies and emotional well being, ultimately creating a healthy sense of self.
Reduce stress and anxiety
Research shows that one hug can significantly lower blood pressure. In turn, the release of oxytocin (happy/love hormone) can create a less stressed state within the body reducing the release of cortisol (stress hormone). This is great news for our chronically stressed society. Lowering cortisol levels is also great for the immune system, ultimately aiding in fighting disease.
Greater trust and connection
Touch is one of the easiest ways to feel close to friends and family. When we get caught up in our busy lifestyles, we often don’t prioritize touch. We don’t have time for that goodbye hug as we run out the door or a quick kiss before our head sinks deeply into the pillow at night, exhausted. When there is no loving touch, we feel disconnected from our loved ones. We can continually renew our bonds with those we love by practicing touch mindfully. When we think we don’t have time for something is exactly the time we should be doing it.
Non-sexual emotional intimacy
Intimacy between you and your partner does not always mean sex. It can mean a variety of things; being comfortable and warm, having a deep understanding of a person, place or thing, or an act or expression serving as a token of affection. This opens up space for you and your partner to get to know each other on many different levels.
For example, routinely massaging your partner allows you to learn more about their body. Ultimately, this will clue you in as to where they hold their tension, giving you a greater understanding of how they’re handling life, its stressors and perhaps opening up different avenues of conversation that may not have been addressed before. We can even learn a lot about what our partner might be going through emotionally, allowing us to take in more information and yet again open a new channel of communication that goes beyond the usual “how was your day?” routine. All the while, you are promoting relaxation, decreasing stress and devoting time to one another.
Undeniably, we can all greatly benefit from the simple act intentional, loving touch. Basically, it feels good to feel good and the many emotional and physical health benefits are an added bonus. So what can we do to normalize touch? It can admittedly be a daunting task. If one is not used to touch or being touched, the newness of such an experience can feel awkward. Here are a few suggestions for incorporating more healthy touch into your life:
If you just want to start by getting comfortable with touch and tactile sensations, it could be very interesting and fun to start with projects that don’t necessarily involve touching other human beings. You could start with your pet and increase the amount of time a day you spend with the animal. Instead of just petting the animal, really be mindful of what the animal’s fur feels like. Are you running your hand over muscle, or are you feeling more bone or adipose tissue? Is the fur soft, or does it seem more oily?
You could plant a garden, make homemade bread and be mindful of what it feels like to knead the dirt or dough, or build a sand castle at the beach.
Whatever activity you choose, approach it with curiosity. Get to know what it is you are feeling in your hands as well as how it makes you feel. It is amazing how your perception of touch will change and how practicing mindfulness while doing so will change your experience.
Seeking out professional touch therapy is one of the best ways to reap the benefits of touch. There is an abundance of research and evidence that proves the affect on the body, mind, and spirit are positive and desirable. Access to different forms of therapy is so important as that may be the only way some people receive positive forms of touch. These forms include massage therapy, energetic bodywork, Thai massage, chiropractic care, reflexology, Craniosacral, acupuncture and more.
Follow your intuition
Despite being a massage therapist, I am not a naturally touch-feely person. I sometimes feel awkward initiating hugs, handshakes or even a pat on the back. I have found though that when I feel an inclination to reach out to someone, an intuitive call to respectfully and safely touch someone in a loving way, it feels more natural and puts me at ease.
Attend a couple’s massage workshop
Learning the basics of massage is a great way to introduce more touch into your relationship with your partner. Dedicating an afternoon to one another in that way is a gift that will allow you both to give AND receive healthy loving touch with intention and a bit more skill than the average person. The workshops I’ve taught have reinforced that there is a need for these classes. Many couples already partake in massaging one another but desire to take their skill to the next level. Massaging your partner is a great way to supplement professional massage therapy.
My hope is that more of us will strive to end touch deprivation and stigmatization. With greater awareness of its benefits along with safe ways and places we can receive healthy touch, incorporating more of it into our lives can be transformative to our mental, physical and emotional health. I invite you to join me in this movement!
Author: Jenny Bork is a licensed massage therapist who specializes in stress management, chronic pain and movement education. She is currently accepting new clients.
Check out her upcoming couples massage events here.