We are born to touch and be touched. Healthy touch is an innate asset when it comes to relieving stress, connecting with ourselves, others, and our world, and it is a primary way we heal. We touch each other, our pets, our world. Mindful touch brings us to the present moment of being alive.
Did you know that skin is the largest organ of your body? It is the first organ to mature, and develops from the same fetal tissue as the nervous system. When we give or receive gentle touch, our “relaxation response” is engaged and our bodies benefit on many levels. Healthier digestion, immune system function, tissue repair, hormonal balance, sleep patterns, neuropeptide function (brain-body communication), blood pressure, pain management, memory function, and stress relief are all evoked by light, attentive touch.
Infant’s and children’s capacity to self-regulate neurologically and emotionally develops from nurturing caregivers who hold, stroke and rock them to soothe and reassure. Throughout our childhood, we learn to bear a range of sensory and emotional experiences with the help of caregivers who reliably tend to us when we are distressed or uncomfortable. We also learn to trust, to experience pleasure and connection through these relationships. Over time we learn to trust ourselves, get accurate information from our body’s cues about how we are responding to the world around us, and to develop our sense of identity, personal boundaries and the ability to self-soothe. “The experiences we have through our skin are recorded in memory networks: our skin learns and remembers” (Montagu and Green).
In her book, “Relaxation, Awareness, Resilience”, Ivy Green notes Tiffany Field’s (1998) research that documented the human need for touch: “Being held and comforted is a developmental requirement so essential that infants may die without it. Infants who are not sufficiently touched fail to thrive, fail to bond, and fail to develop optimal neurological connections for self soothing and emotional regulation.”
Ashley Montagu, in his book “Touching”, noticed that infants placed in the care of an orphanage where they were fed and kept clean but otherwise left alone, died, whereas babies who were held and touched, were able to survive even difficult circumstances.
It’s not just babies and children who need touch to be healthy. Adults of all ages benefit from cuddling, rocking, holding, stroking, rubbing, and hugging. We are mammals after all! Mammals nourish their young not only by providing milk from the mother, but through sensory input experienced through skin. Mammals of all sorts, especially the young, spend many hours a day in some type of physical contact with other mammals. This relational behavior promotes safety and bonding, explores boundaries, and invites curiosity, play and sociability. It also helps to re-regulate the nervous system when one experiences stress. Getting the right kind of touch helps us deal with fear, pain, loss, and difficult circumstances. It helps us know we are not alone, and that we can be comforted and relax.
What happens if we get the wrong kind of touch, or not enough of the right kind of touch as we grow? Its never too late to develop neural pathways that allow us to benefit from nurturing, healthy touch. Start where you are. Even if you have a history of neglect or abuse, most of us can improve our ability to respond positively to gentle, connective and noninvasive touch. If you have experienced negative touch or touch deficit, it may take time and patience, but in most cases your innate response to healthy touch can become a primary resource for well-being and connection. Working with a somatic practitioner along with your skilled mental health practitioner may help you.
Touch is a significant part of being human. It offers infinite possibilities to explore our reality and connect meaningfully in life.
“With our eyes we run over the surface of things, but touching someone is tuning into them, allowing the current they contain to connect with one’s own, like electricity. To put it differently, this means an end to living in front of things and a beginning of living with them. Never mind if the word sounds shocking, for this is love. You cannot keep your hands from loving what they have really felt.”
From “And There Was Light“, 1987, p. 28 , by Jacques Lusseyran
Cited in Ivy Green’s book “Relaxation, Awareness, Resilience“, p 24