Touch is arguably the most important of our five senses. An impairment or lack of hearing, sight, smell and taste may be inconvenient in the short term and debilitating to varying degrees in the long term, but generally it is possible to compensate for these losses and adapt behaviour accordingly.
However, the same cannot be said about the sense of touch. For many species in the animal kingdom, and for humans in particular, touch is essential in promoting and maintaining good health and emotional well-being. Scientific studies have shown that touch deprivation contributes to illness at many levels, including failure to thrive, increased stress levels, increased aggression, sleep difficulties, suppressed immune responses and a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease. (Suffering with any of these conditions? www.jobanthorpe.co.uk)
In many Eastern cultures, the sense of touch is embraced across the generations and is traditionally incorporated into daily routines eg Indian head massage, Thai body massage. Sadly, this is far from the norm in Western society. From the moment we are born, our tactile experiences become less and less frequent and are gradually withdrawn from our daily lives.
As babies, we have continual exposure to the comfort and nurture of our mother’s womb that surrounds us as we develop to full term. As infants, we are nursed as we are fed, but even at this early stage new Mums often feel guilty and are even discouraged from picking up their babies too often for fear of ‘spoiling’ them. Many toddlers and young children still enjoy cuddles and a story at bedtime (assuming these are offered), and will snuggle down to sleep with their favourite soft toy. But all too soon, stories and hugs are replaced by technology – many school-aged kids have a TV or computer in their bedroom and it is a DVD that helps them drift off to sleep, and all too soon snuggly toys are considered to be distinctly un-cool. So by the age of 10, many children have few genuinely loving and nurturing tactile experiences in the course of their daily lives.
By adolescence, touch takes on a whole new meaning and may come with sexual connotations and implications, whilst touch in adulthood can be associated with feelings of expectation that may or may not be appropriate, wanted or welcome, along with feelings of guilt which are associated with rejection or impropriety. Perhaps the most isolated and touch-deprived of today’s generations are the elderly. They may have seen children grown up and flown the nest, lost a long-term partner or be confined to a hospital bed or nursing home where the staff are far too busy for any ‘hands on’ caring. By this time, physical contact may be limited to the administration of medical procedures and a brief hug or peck on the cheek from the occasional visitor.
The irony of this is that even our Health Service recognises the importance of touch in the management of long-term illness and certain medical conditions - premature babies are often laid on fleeces to stimulate their sensory receptors and encourage them to thrive; ‘Pat Dogs’ are encouraged onto some wards, particularly in Geriatrics.
Touch is critical for learning, communication, comfort, reassurance and self-esteem. It is a fact of today’s life that fear of sexual abuse is so widespread that any form of touch is frowned upon and forbidden in some cases, particularly in the instance of adults working with youngsters. Children who experience little in the way of loving, nurturing and comforting touch in their developmental years learn to become self-reliant at a very early age, which in turn increases the tendency to become disconnected, numb and isolated.
As humans, it is our natural instinct to reach out and want to touch and be touched – both actions are necessary in order to maintain a healthy balance in our mind and body. However, in the touch-deprived person there exist simultaneously feelings of starvation and fear. There is a deep need and even desperation for physical and emotional contact, but this may be counteracted by the feeling of terror associated with the thought of the harm that may come if they allow themselves to relate to another person in any way. Our means of survival under these circumstances are to mask our needs, put up barriers, to convince ourselves that our needs don’t even exist and to keep people at arm’s length – just as we feel they are doing to us. In so doing, we become completely unreceptive to any lifeline that might be out there, and become incapable of reaching out.
The widespread use of drugs and alcohol also contributes significantly to the lack of receptivity to touch. Stimulants can make us feel cold and jumpy to the sense of touch; tranquilizers and alcohol can dull our senses and depress the system.
Getting back in touch with ourselves, our needs and our bodies is essential - and it is simple to do, but it does require a conscious effort and a strong degree of intention. The physical and emotional benefits to our health and well-being will become noticeable very quickly and will have far reaching, long term effects.
Simplest of all is to re-sensitise ourselves by touching our own body in a non-sexual, nurturing way. This enables us to re-learn how we like to be touched, either lightly, deeply, firmly, vigourously, moving or still.
Touch your partner – again in a non-sexual, nurturing manner. Talk about your experiences, your likes and dislikes, agree your boundaries, ask permission to gain trust and respect. The experience should be one of giving and receiving rather than giving and taking, and should always be without expectation.
Touch a friend – shaking hands, a hand of the shoulder and a big hug show support, speak volumes and can replace a thousand words.
Touch a four-legged friend – this promotes a two-way flow of unconditional love and affection, although dogs would really rather have your food – but at least they’re honest about it!
Allow yourself to be touched, both emotionally and physically. Watch a film or read a book that includes scenes of affection and love, and notice the feelings that resonate within you. Book yourself a professional massage and promise yourself to make more time for ‘Me Time’, because if you don't look after Number One, then who will?