The Language of Touch

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Touch is the first language we learn and the only truly universal communication that humans share (not including math).

It wakes up the prefrontal areas of our brain, which control our ability to relax and emote. Even a touch to the shoulder sends a message to the brain more powerful than words of support. Holding someone creates a surge of oxytocin, a hormone that helps create a sensation of trust and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Plus, touch tells us there is someone at our backs to share the load—one of the primary impetuses for human relationships.

The Language of Touch

Babies who aren’t held and touched regularly do not thrive; the absence of physical contact is as detrimental to their development as withholding food. Skin to skin contact between babies and their mothers is now the standard of care in neo-natal units. Studies done in orphanages offer up the same conclusions: Babies who are given more eye contact and physical touch develop better and experience less illness. (How tragic to be the infant in the control group.) The power of touch affects adults, too, transforming our physical, emotional, and mental health.

People suffering from physical ailments like fibromyalgia experience a significant reduction in pain with the addition of therapeutic touch. In a study of Alzheimer’s patients, just 20 minutes of therapeutic touch reduced the severity and frequency of behavioral symptoms. And patients became “present” when touched for only 5 minutes at a time. New evidence shows that even brief contact produces immediate changes in how people react and process information. Students who are touched on their back or arm by their teachers were twice as likely to participate in class. Human touch from a doctor to a patient actually leaves people with the impression that their visit lasted twice as long. Researchers say all the high fives and body bumping in sports actually improves athletic performance. Touching the people we live with—even a brief massage—is correlated with decreased depression symptoms and stronger relationships.

Nowhere is this language of touch more powerful than in your own home. My husband and I have instituted a new ritual upon returning home each evening: We hold each other tightly, inhaling and grounding each other, resetting our breathing together. It only takes a few minutes but has seriously reduced the irritability that evening used to provoke. I have also incorporated this into my relationships with my children, and have seen similar results.  Their response to my physical approach tells more than their words ever could about what is happening with them and between us. Spend a few days consciously aware of how many times you are touched in the day and how many times you reach out to touch someone else.  Notice how even the smallest physical exchange impacts how you feel in the moment and with the person you connected with. I envy the European cultures ease in leaning forward and brushing cheeks with almost everyone they meet. Becoming more fluent in the language of touch may be all we need to transform our lives.