Give me a hug!
As a reflexologist, I've seen first hand how powerful the simple act of touch can be. The importance of this innate human connection can’t be underestimated; it's vital to our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
We instinctively understand the benefits of touch. Did you know that touch is the first sense we develop in the womb? It’s a human reflex to reach for your child when she falls, or to cuddle your friend when he’s sad. As children we need touch and affection to understand emotional connections, and develop interpersonal skills. But something seems to shift a little as we move into adulthood. Whether its our British reserve, feelings of awkwardness, living apart from extended family, or wariness due to potential litigation (a real bugbear of mine, especially in school settings), we often shy away from social touch. Dare I also say that our obsession with connecting to our phones (rather than to the people around us) is also adding to the problem?
Not only does touch make us feel good, these moments of human connection have a positive impact on our wellbeing. Human touch triggers the release of serotonin, our feel-good chemical, which is the body’s natural antidepressant, promoting sleep too. Being touched also increases the number of our natural killer cells which are the frontline of the immune system, protecting our body from disease. A 2018 study showed that touch can be used as a tool for communicating empathy, resulting in an analgesic, painkilling effect. And in the reflexology world, this translates to the therapy having potentially positive outcomes for people managing health conditions which cause pain: researchers at the University of Portsmouth found that people felt about 40% less pain, and were able to stand pain for about 45% longer, when they used reflexology as a method of pain relief.
A lack of touch contributes to feelings of loneliness. Loneliness was deemed as damaging as smoking and obesity in a 2015 report by Nesta and the Cabinet Office. The study found that lonely people are 1.8 times more likely to visit their GP, 1.6 times more likely to visit A&E and 3.5 times more likely to enter local authority-funded residential care. Studies have shown that people who feel more affection-deprived are less happy, more likely to experience depression and stress, and, in general, in worse health. When we're deprived of human touch we're less likely to form secure attachments with others and seek nourishment in non-healthy ways, such as with addictions to e.g. drugs, alcohol and gambling.
Some cool science: There are different types of nerve endings that recognise touch, inclduing those that detect itchiness, vibration, pain, pressure and texture. One type of nerve fibres, called C-tactile afferents, take the touch signal from the skin to the limbic system – the part of the brain involved in our behavioural and emotional responses. When I trained as a reflexologist, one of the most powerful techniques I learnt was how to stimulate these nerve fibres, by incorporating specific light, stroking touch into my treatments. Scientists have learned that the optimum speed of a human caress is 3-5 centimetres a second, and so I work to this speed. Not only does it feel amazing but it stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system which works to calm down our stress response, reducing cortisol levels, lowering our heart rate and blood pressure, and regulating our breathing. C-tactile afferents are relevant because us human beings are designed to cuddle and stroke each other, and do it naturally at this speed. Try stroking your arm right now, you’ll instinctively do it. This natural feeling of pleasant touch encourages us to keep on touching, nurturing kids and grown-ups too.
Although it’s great to give/receive touch amongst those close to us, affectionate human touch with those we don’t know can be good too. That’s why movements such as Free Hugs and Guerilla Hugs (essentially, people giving and receiving hugs on the street) became so popular. Writer Michelle Fiordaliso, in an essay in the New York Times, makes the case for unexpected moments of intimacy between strangers. "Touch solidifies something – an introduction, a salutation, a feeling, empathy," she writes. Here here! I’ve been on the receiving end of friendly touch and a warm smile from strangers, and it has felt wonderfully comforting and kind. And you never know, that reassuring light touch on the arm that you give a stranger in the supermarket might just help someone who is struggling with loneliness, who has recently lost their partner, has had a row with their teenager that morning, or is just feeling a bit crap.
Don't be afraid! Although some people really don't like being touched/touching others (some have a genuine phobia) and for others it might not be culturally appropriate, most people do appreciate the intention of friendly touch. I definitely touch people in everyday settings more than I used to when I worked in an office in the corporate world. Maybe it just comes more naturally to be tactile now that my job is to work on people's feet?
So today, if it feels right, hold a friend’s hand, give a mate a big ole squeeze, cuddle your pooch, provide a supportive touch to a stranger...I'm going to cuddle-bomb my kids when they get home from school, and they WILL love it!
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