The Power of Touch

Image by Fr. Stephen, MSC

Do you realize how little we touch one another?

When I was 19 I had the opportunity to spend a couple of months living and working in a community development project in one of Bangkok’s largest slums. I learned a lot from that trip, and I’m sure it’ll come up in a future post, as it was a formative experience for me, but one of the lasting memories I have of that trip is the amount I was physically touched.

The first time it happened I was walking down the street with two local guys that I’d met the day before. They’d been friendly but we’d only just met and I’m not sure that I’d have called them friends just yet.

As we walked down the street, one of the men slipped his arm around my shoulder. A few minutes later the other took my hand. The three of us strolled down the street, arm in arm, hand in hand.

They were totally natural about it. I was in the middle, and I was freaking out, wondering if I was going to have to talk my way out of a compromising situation.

The thing was that there was nothing sexual about the touch of these guys. Over the coming weeks I saw and experienced it many times over. Men sitting arm in arm with each other, and women walking down the street hand in hand.

It took me a while to take off my Western Glasses and get used to it. The Thai people were just much more able to express their feelings and comfort with each other using touch than I’d ever been.

Interestingly, as I reflect back on those two months in a Thai slum, I realize that while I was in a fairly stressful situation, it was one of the times in my life that I felt most at peace and relaxed. There may be numerous reasons for that, but I suspect one was touch.

The Power of Touch

It has been well documented that touch is a very powerful thing.

Any parent doing a pre-natal class has it drummed into them. Babies that are touched regularly thrive, while those that aren’t touched, don’t.

Image by _Nezemnaya_

Touch is effectively our first language as a baby:

  • Touch helps create the bond between a baby and its parents.
  • Touch helps to calm and soothe a distressed baby.
  • Touch is thought to help in neurological developmen.
  • Touch is thought to help relieve physical discomfort.

The list goes on—particularly in the early years, it’s widely accepted that touch is essential.

I still remember being taken to an orphanage on that same trip to Thailand, and seeing a room full of young children and babies in cots who were rarely touched. The looks on the faces of those children still haunt me. Distressed, lonely, and obviously physically unwell, these children were physically cared for, but something was missing—loving touch.

I still remember picking up one of the babies in that room. When I picked her up she was a very stressed little girl but over the next 30 minutes as I held her and massaged her little arms and cheeks she relaxed and the distress in her face melted away. Leaving her alone in her cot, perhaps never to be cuddled again, was one of the toughest things I’ve done.

Experiences like that have made me very aware of the importance of touch as I raise my own children today. My kids have been massaged, cuddled, kissed, and tickled since the days they were born. Of course the touch is backed up with love and care in other areas, but we’ve gone out of our way to use touch in day-to-day of life.

Touch beyond childhood

Somewhere along the line, physical touch slowly drops out of the lives of many of us. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it changes in nature.

I’m no sociologist but somewhere as we grow older and enter into adolescence touch tends to become sexualized. On some levels I guess that’s natural—we hit puberty, those hormones begin to pump around our bodies, our sexuality wakes up, and we begin to become aware of touch with new possibilities.

The problem is that for many of us non-sexual touch tends to exit life at this point.

Image by Patrick Gage

The need for touch doesn’t end, though—and that sets us up for something of a problem.

Sure, we still use it when greeting each other—handshakes, perhaps a hug or a kiss on the cheek—but part of me wonders whether we’re short-changing ourselves a little.

I’m not saying we all need to touch one another indiscriminately—there’s a need for common sense, boundaries, and appropriate touch—but it strikes me that perhaps as a society that we could learn a thing or two about this topic.

If touch is such a powerful thing, why do we reserve it for kids, fleeting greetings, or the bedroom?

Have your say

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this—either in comments below or on our Facebook page where we’ve already been chatting about touch and have had some interesting input on topics including touch in health care, pets, and the cultural differences of touch.

About Darren Rowse

Darren is the founder of FeelGooder and various other blogs including ProBlogger Blog Tips, Digital Photography School. Check out his popular posts How to Start a Blog and How to Make Money Blogging.

Comments

  1. Piper Larson says:

    What a powerful post Darren. For about five years I had a job that included business with individuals from around the world. And you’re so right about our “Western Glasses”. I felt downright uncomfortable in several situations at first, because of my own hang ups about personal space. Conversations often involved hugging and hand-holding, or just standing/sitting very closely. As I moved past my own discomfort, I realized how close I felt to some of these people, because of touch.

    I no longer work in this environment. And I miss it. I think touch is essential to people of all ages. Thanks for a beautiful post!

    ~Piper

  2. I don’t think people actively reserve touch for kids, greetings and the bedroom. There’s such a fear of being misunderstood when touching. Will you invade someone’s physical space? Will you be accused of touching with sexual intent? Have you assumed a level of closeness not recognised by the other person? And so on.

    You’re right. Touch is amazing and we could learn a thing or two. It will be an ambitious project to get things moving in the right direction, but surely a worthwhile one!

  3. This is a great post Darren! I have noticed how much less we touch as adults. I do think a big part of it is that we don’t want to impose or have our actions misinterpreted, so we just don’t do it. My mother is hugger. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been more uncomfortable with it but I realized a few years ago that it was simply a physical expression of affection and not something I needed to avoid or be ashamed of. I decided I could use more hugging in my life, and so I have actively worked to hug more often: friends, family, and even clients with whom I’ve become close. It helps me feel more connected to them, and hopefully it shows them that I care about them on that crucial, personal level.

  4. I worked in healthcare for many years and it’s amazing what touch does for patients. I wasn’t in direct care, but the interactions I had with patients, at beside, gave me opportunities to hold hands, stroke arms and be fully present for folks in need. We were told that so many people do not receive touch on a regular basis — I’m here to say that the majority loved having a personal interaction. It truly is a healing measure that costs nothing.

    This is super article — it reminds us to reach out and get physical with those we love (and those we don’t!). My wish is for people to continue to connect in the physical world as technology separates us.

    Laura

  5. Kirsten says:

    This is clearly a subject that resonates with a lot of people, and in ways we may not necessarily anticipate. When I ran a vote to choose the initial subject on my Interactive Novel project on http://www.writteninsight.com, I was amazed that at the character that won – a girl who physically begins to disappear in the absence of touch. She won in a landslide, and now in a follow-up poll about the different plot options, a psychic examination of the reasons she disappears is tied with a classic quest plot that I expected to be an overwhelming favorite. Now that I’ve read this, I’m wondering if that’s an indication of people responding to the concept of lack of touch…

  6. I know at least for myself, a lack of being touched can lead to feeling uncomfortable when someone touches you. I actually feel myself physically stiffen when someone touches me, even in passing, unless I’m close to them. I don’t remember being cuddled much as a child, and I think that plays a part. With my own son, I’ve tried to create the opposite experience so he can benefit from both my touch as a mother and the friendly touch of others later in his life, instead of bristling at it like I do. We need that connection.

  7. Ben Harack says:

    I recall watching a psychology documentary about how premature babies were studied to see how their health changed with the addition of regular touching (even through a glove). As I recall the babies that were touched gained weight much faster, were healthier, and were able to leave the intensive care more quickly than their counterparts.

    Touch is very much a biological need.

    Also, people with pets are healthier. I have heard that people say that this is because they are being touched, even by an animal instead of a human.

  8. Tasha says:

    An excellent post!

    As one who grew up without a lot of positive touch, I made a point of communicating with my own children through touch from the time they were born. Its been very uplifting to me as they grew up.

    When my older boy was about 16, he did complain that I was touching too much, that it sort of weirded him out. I was a bit wounded, as I knew I was not touching him inappropriately, and touching him was how I told him I loved him, since he was already of an age where he didn’t like HEARING it from me.

    My boys are now 21 and 17, are ok again with Mom’s touch, and in fact are very expressive with touch themselves. They’re good, good boys, and I love them dearly.

  9. Sheila says:

    Darren, I greatly enjoyed your article. Growing up, touching was not something my sister and I regularly experienced. Although it didn’t scar me I definitely missed it. When I got married, the touching came preliminary to sex. I craved being held without always having it lead to sexual intimacy. When I had my kids I finally found my outlet. My kids have been held, kissed and hugged on a regular basis, when they’ve needed it and when I’ve needed it. I believe I have broken this cycle and hope my kids will carry on this attribute.

  10. Stephanie says:

    You’re right Darren, touch is powerful. I remember the first few days after giving birth to my first baby girl. All I could do was stare and touch her teeny weeny hands and fingers. It was a connection only we shared as mother and daughter and I will never forget it. :)

  11. Ryan says:

    Darren, I had this same experience in Africa that you had in Thailand. One of the reasons why it is great to get out of your home country and experience another culture first hand so you can see things through a different lens.

  12. Sara says:

    I have seen first hand how powerful and destructive touch can be. ‘Bad Touch’ can destroy a history of good touch and cause someone to have long-lasting difficulties finding comfort in true loving and friendly touch. Children who have been assaulted (physically and/or sexually) often become confused as to what touch is supposed to mean. It doesn’t help that, as you said, western society often sexualizes touch. That makes it more difficult for the kids to get a grasp on how powerful and healing good touch can be.

    Children with touch sensory issues often struggle in a variety of ways because their parents can’t soothe them the same way a well-child can be soothed with loving/caring touch. Being unable to touch a child who is melting down tears at a loving parent’s heart so hard.

    I hesitate to say it’s truly a western phenomenon that we’re reluctant to touch. In France it is common to see people holding hands or walking arm-in-arm. My daughterh has a French tutor who is very loving and touchy toward my daughter. It is quite a special bond they have. Maybe that’s just part of the French mystique?

    Thank you for such a thought provoking post and I look forward to learning more about your time in Thailand. Sounds like it was phenomenal.

  13. Great post Darren, as usual, leading the way into great content creation. This post has hit a nerve and has reinforced what a very dear person to me is always saying. The power of a simple touch is so important and yes even to adults.
    thanks

  14. Catrina says:

    The power of touch is amazing! With my husband we have tried to use this a lot, especially when we have something unpleasant we have to say to each other, whether it be something that we need to improve on, or simply sharing bad news. What we do is hold hands before we say anything that could have negative consequences, and the power of touch is so amazing that we NEVER get into a fight when we remember to hold hands first! It has definitely been a plus in our marriage.

  15. The US has made it so taboo for touching, everyone is scared. I am like a couple of other commentors, there was no affection shown in my home as I was growing up. I have had to struggle with that even with my husband. I have worked hard to make sure my kids did not have this issue, by showing affection on a regular basis. Two of them have kids of their own, and they have no trouble showing affection, so hopefully I was able to break that cycle in my family.
    Thanks Darren for bringing this up. It needs to be talked about.
    Bernice
    http://livingthebalancedlife.com/2010/the-fine-art-of-napping/

  16. By the time my friend K returned from a year in Brazil, she no longer observed American body boundaries. She’d walk into the room, step around the empty chairs, sit down as close as possible on the sofa and lean the entire side of her body against mine.

    I loved it immediately. The interesting thing is that, although I had no clear knowledge of Brazilian customs and body language, I knew that K’s closeness was platonic. In a situation like that, you can sense it. You just know.

  17. John Sherry says:

    Bang on Darren. Touch heals, helps and heartens. It seems the older we get the touchier we become emotionally but not physically unless it’s a serious partnership (and then not always). Touch has so many levels from hugs to pats on the back and they are truly reassuring. A simple topic but with widespread benefits for anyone anywhere of any age. It’s wise to be hands on in life don’t you think?

  18. Justine says:

    Great post Darren! I am such a kinesthetic person and over the last few years I have noticed the impact that lack of touch had on me and my sense of wellbeing. A hug is one of the most powerful ways to soothe anyone – baby, child, teen or adult – yet far too often in our society we don’t reach out and offer this simple gesture of touch.
    Thank you for the reminder, Darren. I’m about to hug my son when the school bell goes and while that usually gathers a few stares from some of the very proper mums at the school, I love that my son and I always greet each other this way.

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  1. [...] was reading an article on a new blog, feelgooder.com regarding how important touch is in our lives, and it was inspiring.  I tend to not touch as [...]

  2. [...] in babies and children.  What about us adults?  We can start now.  By honoring The Power of Touch and the realization that it is highly effective in reducing stress, a source of well-deserved [...]

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