Touch – Our first language
“Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth” So writes Margaret Atwood in her novel: The blind Assassin (2000). How absolutely true. Touch is the first language we learn and the 1st sense to develop. Already in the womb, we begin to touch our faces, in an attempt to learn about ourselves. We feel the water surrounding us, we touch the uterus wall, we grip and play with the umbilical cord. This is what makes us feel safe as we begin to explore the world around us. As infants we are calmed and soothed by our mothers’ touch. Also, the attachment between mother and child is enhanced by a mother’s touch. It tells the baby ‘I’m here, you are safe”. Depending on the type of touch, positive or negative emotions can be generated. Physical contact is absolutely essential to optimal early childhood development. Skin-to-skin contact between a parent and a child stimulates healthy brain activity in infants. Babies develop trust in their caregivers and develop a sense of security when picked up quickly when they cry. Touch can help small babies grow bigger, and help troubled children to feel less anxious.
Throughout all stages of our lives, we are comforted and assisted by touch. Students who receive a supportive touch participate more in class. Athletes perform better when they receive a high-five or a supportive slap from a teammate. It has been found that loving touch can lower blood pressure. It also reduces anxiety and stress by lowering the stress hormone, cortisol, and increasing our levels of oxytocin, which is sometimes referred to as the “cuddle” or “bonding” hormone. Touch increases our happy hormones – serotonin and dopamine – which improves memory, learning and acts as an anti-depressant. When a loved one touches or massages an area of pain or discomfort, relaxation occurs and pain is relieved, since the brain releases oxytocin and perceives the sensory input as a reward. Touch is the universal, prime language, it is the essence of who we are. Appropriate touch communicates connection and safety much louder than words can ever do. In fact, the sensation of touch is ten times stronger than any verbal contact or interaction.
Psychologist Matthew Hertenstein demonstrated that we have an innate ability to decode emotions via touch alone. Very interesting in this regard is that we also pick up on the emotion of the person who touches us! This happens within 5 seconds of being touched! In his study, participants communicated 8 distinct emotions, namely anger, fear, disgust , love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness through touch. His research also showed that touch can communicate a multiple positive emotions, like joy, love, gratitude and sympathy. Touch seems to be a much more nuanced, sophisticated and precise way of communicating emotions, when compared to speech or even body language.
Appropriate touch is one of the key needs of all homo-sapiens. It has the capacity to nurture relationships and to enhance our overall wellbeing, it leads to more positive interactions as well as a deeper sense of connection with others. Touch communicates, influences, heals and soothes. Furthermore, touch has a reciprocal nature – one cannot touch without being touched… the person doing the touching receives many of the same beneficial physiological benefits as the person being touched. It has also been shown that touch is the best way to communicate comfort, to console. In fact there are times of intense grief or fear, but also in ecstatic moments of joy and love, when touch is the only language that can fully express how we feel.
Being consciously aware of being touched is not necessary for us to experience the benefits, however, being mindful of touch, listening to the language of touch , tuning in to the warmth of the skin, slowing it down, feeling the electricity of the touch … , can boost it’s benefits. Touch is a language we need to feel, not just something we do.
Although we need to stay protected during the Covid 19 pandemic, we also need to be careful to not bereave ourselves of the nurturing, healing and connectedness that come through human touch. So, what to do during this time of social and physical distancing? What do we do when we live alone without any significant others, and are unable to touch or be touched by another human being? Self-caressing is an option, since it also yields some benefits, like slowing down the heart rate and lowering cortisol. We can hug ourselves, we can massage our own necks, one hand can massage the other, we can massage our feet and our faces, we can mindfully moisturise our bodies with cream, we can play with our hair etc …. We can stroke our pets, and allow them to lick our hand in reciprocation. If we do live with significant others, perhaps we can be more mindful of touching each other appropriately, since there is no touching outside of this circle, thereby giving each other the gift of all the benefits of touch. Encouraging touches and pats on the back, a gentle hug from someone close, reassuring squeezes of our hands and even the strong touch of a massage allow us to nurture these close relationships.
Touch is fundamental to the human experience . One tender squeeze communicates so many messages, and it does so instantly – messages like “you’ll be okay”, “I am here for you”, “I hear you” , ‘ I see you”, “you are not alone”, “I’ve got your back”, “I love you”, “I’m right here with you” . Touch doesn’t need to be intimate or huge to have a significant effect. A pat on the back, a handshake or a squeeze of the arm stimulate the reward centres in the brain and allows us to feel happier, safer, more confident, soothed and connected.
Perhaps during this period of social distancing, we can all become aware of the huge void created by not being able to touch or be touched as usual, and make a point of being more mindful of using touch as a means of communication once Covid-19 is something of the past. My plea is to not allow the current status quo of physical distancing to continue past its expiry date, to not allow it to become entrenched in how we engage with each other in the future. We need the comfort and connection and safety and powerful emotional and physical health benefits of appropriate touching. Wellbeing in the long term depends on touch just as much as it depends on food and water.