The Remarkable Power of Touch

The Remarkable Power of Touch

The power of touch is profound – whether it is an accidental glazing from a stranger, the strong kneading of a professional masseur, a gentle hold from someone close, a reassuring squeeze of the hand, an ‘I see you’ caress, an encouraging touch on the back, a quick kiss on the forehead or one that is slower, more tender and more anticipated. It can strengthen connections, heal, communicate, influence and soothe. When the touch is cold and brittle, it can also widen the distance between two people. If it came with gorgeous packaging and retail hype, we’d be lining up to do the deal. Fortunately, we don’t need to do any of that. 

Our skin is our largest organ and would measure about two metres if it was laid flat. Given that our bodies are precious real estate, for something to take up this much room, there must be a good reason for it. Yes it’s to stop infections and yes it’s to stop our important bits and pieces falling out but there is another reason. It is the pathway for touch – one of our most powerful and important functions. For long-term wellbeing, touch is as important as food and security.

In one tender squeeze there are so many things that can be said. ‘You’ll be okay.’ ‘I’m proud of you.’ ‘Yeah, I’m worried about it too.’ ‘It’s scary isn’t it.’ ‘You’re freaking amazing.’ ‘Come on. Talk to me.’ ‘What’s happening with us?’ ‘I love you.’ When it’s from the right person in the right context, we rarely have to guess the words – the words become irrelevant anyway. Instantly we can feel closer, calmer and more understood. 

Touch is fundamental to the human experience. It is most likely no accident then, that the lack of connection, either emotional or physical is discussed in terms of touch – tactless, lost touch with, out of touch.

Of course, touch can also hurt. With very good reason, we have made moves to protect ourselves and those we care about from the type of touch that can have catastrophic consequences. There are strong boundaries around the appropriate use of touch and this is a good thing – we need to feel safe. ‘Safe touch’ though, doesn’t have to mean ‘no touch’.

In discouraging the wrong touch, we need to be careful not to make ourselves vulnerable to ‘touch hunger’, a phenomenon described by Dr Tiffany Field, Director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. When we experience a lack of physical contact, fundamental human needs are left unmet, particularly around our relationships and our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. 

Research has found clear cultural differences in interpersonal touch. In a widely cited study, psychologist Sidney Jourard observed friends chatting to each other in cafes across the world. Jourard found that in the space of an hour, people in Puerto Rico touched each other an average of 180 times. In Paris, it was 110 times. Jet over to Florida and the averaged dropped to twice an hour. In London the average was zero.

There are plenty of good reasons not to touch every stranger we see – there’s touch hunger, and then there’s creepy – but when we hold back on too much, we miss out on too much.

What do we need to know? The unspoken rules.

We need touch. We need the comfort, the connection the security and the powerful emotional and physical health benefits that come by being touched in safe and appropriate ways. An abundance of research has found that the benefits of touch don’t stop at the people we feel safe folding into. Less than one second of safe, interpersonal touch, such as a hand to the back or the shoulder can influence health and behaviour in remarkable ways. But how to do this safely.

Not all touch is created equal. Research has found certain rules and ‘no-fly zones’ when it comes to interpersonal touch.  We all have a zone of personal space that feels comfortable but the distance of that no-fly zone depends on culture and social norms, length of touch, context, relationship and where the touch is. According to research:

  • The touch has to feel non-sexually harassing. This depends on the specific part of the body touched and on the specific characteristics of the person (gender, age and relationship with the touched person).
  • Being touched on the face by a co-worker is considered the most inappropriate and harassing type of touch. It is not surprising then, that it is also a touch that sends the strongest messages in intimate relationships as well. A touch to the face in intimate relationships can be tender and communicate love and intimacy, or it can be aggressive and frightening and done to communicate control and dominance.
  • Touch in the waist region is also inappropriate and harassing.
  • A gentle tap on the shoulder is considered the least harassing. 

The many powers of touch.

Touch is such a powerful means of communication. It is the first language we learn and it is the first sense to develop. Done appropriately, it has a profound capacity to nurture our relationships and our overall well-being. Here are some things that it’s capable of.

  1. More nurturing touch, less violence.

    Research shows that when there is greater physical affection during childhood, the rates of adult physical violence are lower. On the other hand, when touch is limited, physical and verbal aggression is higher. The results have been found in both adolescents and children

  2. Communication without words.

    Professor Matt Hertenstein at DePauw University has researched the use of touch as a language and has found that we can communicate emotion through touch, not just with those we are familiar with, but also with strangers. Hertenstein put two strangers in front of each other and separated them with a physical barrier. One person had to put their arm through a hole in the barrier. The other person had to communicate an emotion to the stranger on the other side using only a one-second touch to the stranger’s forearm. With so many emotions on the list, the chances of guessing the right emotion just by chance were about 8%. The results left no doubt about our ability to communicate emotion through touch. Compassion was correctly interpreted almost 60% of the time, Gratitude, anger, love and fear were correctly interpreted more than 50% of the time. 

  3. Reduces stress.

    There’s no doubt that a cuddle from the right person at the right time can take the steam out of stress. Any touch, even an incidental one that lasts for less than a second, can soothe the physiological response to stress by lowering blood pressure and cortisol (the stress hormone). Lower stress means happier hearts. 

  4. Brings people closer together.

    Oxytocin is affectionately known as ‘the cuddle chemical’. Affection that is wanted causes the release of oxytocin. It helps to nurture feelings of trust and connectedness and it also reduces cortisol (the stress hormone). Twenty seconds of affectionate touching (hugging, back rubs, gentle stroking) is enough to trigger the release of oxytocin. It is also released during sex.

  5. Communicates compassion.

    Sometimes there are no words, but there is  touch. Touch activates the body’s vagus nerve which is intimately connected with our compassionate response. The vagus nerve is the pair of nerves that extends from the brain to the belly and passes the heart along the way. 

  6. It just makes people … nicer.

    Those who are touched in ways that feel appropriate and safe are more likely to co-operate and share resources. As always, the touch doesn’t have to be monumental. A quick touch on the back can do beautiful things.

  7. Nurtures growth and development.

    For babies to thrive, they need to be touched. Premature babies who received three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 5-10 consecutive days gained 47% more weight than those who received standard medical care and all the nutrition, warmth and physical security. As well as this, infants whose mothers touched them more had more advanced visual motor skills and more advanced gross motor development. 

  8. But it’s not just for the babies.

    Massage therapy reduces the pain in pregnant women, helps to ease the symptoms of prenatal depression and improves the couple relationship.

  9. Helps people with Alzheimers

    Touching (touch therapy, massage therapy) for patients with Alzheimers reduces stress and depressive symptoms and helps them to make emotional connections with others.

  10. A touch that lasts less than a second can influence behaviour. 

    Research found that students who were gently touched on the back by a teacher in a friendly incidental way were twice as likely to volunteer and participate in a class discussion. In the study, undergraduate university students were first asked to work on a maths problem individually. All students were given positive encouragement by the teacher as they worked on the problem. As the teacher delivered the praise to each student, a number of students were briefly touched for one second on the forearm as they worked. Following this, students were asked to demonstrate the solution on a board in front of the class. Students who were briefly touched on the forearm by the teacher during the exercise were more likely to volunteer than those who were not. 

    Touching tends to have become taboo in the American school system and valid fears about abusive forms of touching rightfully limit contact within the classroom. But these findings suggest that as we define and redefine the limits for this contact, we should not neglect the sense of comfort and confidence that might come through the right kinds of touch between strangers.‘  Nicolas Guéguen, Professor of Psychology.

  11. And in the library.

    When students checked out a book from a library, students who had the library card returned to them in such a way that they had physical contact with the librarian for about half a second, reported liking the library more and were more likely to go back. The touch was so minimal that not all were aware of the touch when it happened. The effect was the same whether students were consciously aware of the touch or not. 

    Moving from the library to the sales room, buyers who were slightly touched by a salesperson rated that salesperson more positively than buyers who weren’t touched. The key is ‘slightly’ touched as in very non-aggressive, very non-sleazy and very incidental. 

  12. Happier, closer intimate relationships.

    Physical affection between couples is gold in relationships. Aside from boosting that loving feeling, physical affection eases the subjective experience of stress and improves relationship satisfaction. When couples in one study were asked to take part in a stressful event (public speaking), those couples who hugged for 20 seconds after spending 10 minutes holding hands and watching a romantic video (awwww) had significantly lower blood pressure and heart rate than the couples who only rested quietly for 10 minutes and 20 seconds.

  13. Builds champion teams.

    Research has found that teams that touched more performed better. In research that looked specifically at NBA players , it was found that when players touch their teammates more, such as with a high five, fist bumps, chest bumps, a hug after scoring a goal, they performed better. The reason for this is unknown – we just know it works. It is likely to be related to increased co-operation, increased confidence, and a closer connection between players.

  14. Makes your sorry sound ‘sorrier’.

    Touch during an apology adds warmth and sincerity. It triggers a part of the brain called the insula which plays a part in processing emotions. The warmth, closeness, eye contact and other messages that are communicated through touch can help soothe leftover negative emotion and upset that has warranted the apology in the first place.

To make it count, be mindful.

Tuning in to the touch isn’t always necessary – touch has been shown to have positive benefits even when the experience of being touched doesn’t register – but being mindful of the touch will boost the good that comes from it.

Touch is a language, and listening can be profoundly connecting, healing and soothing. When you hug someone close to you, for example, slow it down. Feel the full experience of the touch. Feel the warmth of the skin or the electricity or tenderness that might not come from it. Rather than having it pass as a thing you do, let it be a thing you feel.

With strangers touch can be more difficult. Opportunities will present themselves but there are plenty of social rules that stand guard. Handshaking is a form of touch which is socially acceptable with strangers and when it is done mindfully, it can allow for eye contact and a greater connection. When it’s appropriate and incidental, as opposed to creepy and forced, brief interpersonal touch can make a very real difference to an interaction.

And finally …

We all have an inbuilt need to be touched. When it is done respectfully and appropriately, touch is a vital part of the human experience. The touch doesn’t have to be intimate and it doesn’t have to be big to have an effect. A pat on the back, a rub on the shoulder, a handshake, a professional massage – all stimulate the reward centres in the brain. We feel happier, safer, more confident, more soothed and more connected.

Over time, our own histories and experiences influence the way we see the world and the way we reach into it to fulfil our needs. Though we need to stay protected and be wary of unsafe touch, we also need to be careful not to rob ourselves of the nurturing, healing and connectedness that comes through basic human touch. Humans need humans. It has always been that way and it always will be. It is important to define what is right and what is acceptable and to have boundaries where necessary, and at the same time leave space for what will nourish our health, our relationships and our spirit.

27 Comments

Vernon A

In the era of the global pandemic that is Covid-19 I searched out web articles about the human touch even as physical distancing becomes the new normal. Thank you for this.

Reply
C

I had read this article not so long before, last fall, and shared with a girlfriend. It was the 30 second hug story that led me here even though I follow Karen’s blog.
Little did I know I would be experiencing the same thing Lisa Brown shared. Sure, enough, I was at my fathers deathbed, and their he was holding my hand as we looked into each others eyes, giving me my last reassurances that everything would be alright.

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Laura O

In these strange days of Covid-9 we are at last becoming aware of the disappointments and sadness of not being allowed to touch anyone…I hope that as a result of this “enlightenment” people in the UK and USA will realise we have gone too far in the “no touching” direction, and will once again start to enjoy the simple pleasures of a friendly, non-aggressive, non-sleazy touch, once the pandemic has passed.

Reply
Jacqueline M

I never really understood how important human touch was until I started attending a private high school with a No Touch policy. Your work has helped me understand that no matter what anyone says, human touch is a required part of human life no matter how old you are.

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Colleen

Hi Karen,
I would love to use a quote from your article for a speech I am doing. Could you please give me your background? maybe credentials? I love your content in this article!
Thank you!

Reply
Sassy

What about a spouse who needs to be touched anytime your near…foot massage, hair rubbed, shoulders\neck. I love to hold hands and be near but it’s almost an expectation to extremes. I try not to expect those things often because they are special, a treat for long days, times alone. I don’t want to be demanding. But literally…if I’m near I can’t just touch. I have to massage, rub, be involved in a task. No just being close and holding hands. It’s exhausting at times and it seems abnormal to me to expect that so often. Am I wrong?

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Bal K

I am a Parkinson’s sufferer and the uplifting and compassion conveyed are very encouraging. Thank you for your help.

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Tops

All the comments are so relevant but so much today is about not touching. How do we square the circle

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Karen Young

It’s about touch happening in the context of a relationship where the boundaries are clear, and where touch is wanted and invited.

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Lisa Brown

The day that my father died, we held hands. As he kept rubbing my thumb, I had no idea that would be the last time I’d feel the reassuring touch of my dad.

After he passed away, I was dreading my first Father’s Day without him. God in His compassion allowed me to dream of Daddy a week before Father’s Day. In the dream, my father placed his arm around my shoulder and said that he’d always be with me.

It’s only been seven months since he passed, so my emotions are still raw. On the days that I cannot seem to control the tears, I begin rubbing my thumb as Daddy rubbed it on the day he died.

The power of human touch goes beyond our mortal bodies: it is eternal.

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Lisa Brown

The day that my father died, we held hands. As he kept rubbing my thumb, I had no idea that would be the last time I’d feel the reassuring touch of my dad.

After he passed away, I was dreading my first Father’s Day without him. God in His compassion allowed me to dream of Daddy a week before Father’s Day. In the dream, my father placed his arm around my shoulder and said that he’d always be with me.

It’s only been seven months since he passed, so my emotions are still raw. On the days that I cannot seem to control the tears, I begin rubbing my thumb as Daddy rubbed it on the day he died.

The power of human touch goes beyond our mortal bodies: it is eternal>

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Natalie

My husband is Spanish and we have moved back to Spain after living 30 years in Canada. The people here kiss and hug and touch with all the time and I love it! But the problem here is that everybody talks but nobody listens – parents don’t listen to their children and the children and adolescents suffer from this. Any thoughts?

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Hey Sigmund

Children learn so many things from their parents that their parents don’t realise they are teaching them – even listening! Listening is a skill that also needs to be learned. The hardest part is putting your own needs on hold for long enough to listen to what someone else needs. It’s not as automatic as you might think. If parents aren’t listening to their kids, it’s not surprising that kids aren’t listening to their parents. (But the way people touch sounds lovely!)

Reply
Zoe

Thank you so much!

I just love this article!

If everyone knew and practiced this, it would be a major step forward to creating a saner world.

Reply
Sue

This article made me think about the mixed messages we send to teens, at a time in their lives when the need for touch explodes and also during a time when there is a natural distancing from parents. We dismiss their need for touch and natural exploration (confusing it with sexual acting-out). Yet, this can be a time of serious hard-life lessons about ‘good touch/bad touch.’ It seems to me that we need healthier more open discussions with young people on the topic of touch. Thank you for this thoughtful article.

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Hey Sigmund

Sue I absolutely agree with you. The need for touch never leaves, but with confusing information (or no information!) teens are vulnerable to decisions that might not be good ones for them. Conversation is key isn’t it.

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Lucy

This is a really lovely article, thank you. I am a physio and it is such a privilege to be able to touch people (without wanting to sound like a pervert) and to connect with them in a tactile way.
At the moment my kids drive me mad by touching me all the time and leaning on me, but I also know that at some point they won’t do this, and I will crave their touch when its gone.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Lucy. The work you do as a physio is healing on so many levels and touch is at the heart of it. I know what you mean with your kids – sometimes a moment of space would be so nice wouldn’t it. It will ease off a lot eventually but they’ll never be too old for a cuddle (even if they act like they are!).

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Turenne

It is great to raise our awareness about nurturing, mending a relationship or just showing that we care with a simple mindful touch. Mindfulness is the key to a safe and healthy touch. Isn’t it?

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Hey Sigmund

Absolutely Turenne. Touch can be so powerful can’t it and mindfulness is such an important part of everything we do, including keeping touch safe, nurturing and healthy.

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Turenne

I agree Karen! What attracts me most in Hey Sigmund is that I feel mindfulness underlying every beautiful article.

I trust dance to help understand viscerally that important state of being and to learn through a better connection to our body to live mindfully. I try to share that on world dance spirit danse .

Care to give me your feedback on this?

Reply

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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