Touching heals

The instinct to touch and communicate warmth, compassion or empathy is the most humane of characteristics

Touch and glow“A hundred hugs to you,” I told my friend Tanisha Dedia, who is battling multiple sclerosis and who I couldn’t meet but wanted to hug so desperately. “I’ll take each one of them,” she said over the phone. “They are going to help me more than the steroids that I am on and the hospitals that I visit every few days.”

In a society like ours, where overt expression of affection and physical closeness is not encouraged between adults, touching isn’t a part of everyday life. But, touch has a greater significance than most of us would realise.

For many of us touch is as good as therapy.

Says Gauri Parulekar, for whom stress has been a constant companion for the past many years: “I need my eight hugs from my family and friends every single day. They soothe me and recharge me. I feel more in command, ready to face the next challenge of life!”

Tender and humane

The instinct to touch and communicate warmth, compassion or empathy is the most humane of characteristics. To touch and be touched are part of healing of mind and spirit. When we touch, we convey we care, deeply and immediately. Our minds, our spirits reach out. Mothers do it inherently, friends do it and lovers do it without a second thought.

Says Dr Vithal Prabhu, senior sex therapist and counsellor: “Holding close, hugging, snuggling, petting often, which is not sexual, is all good for your heart, relationships and emotional health.”

Psychologist James Lynch spent hours in coronary care units observing the severely-ill, their relatives and friends who love and care. “They speak to each other in subdued tones, appear as normal as possible and sometimes even joke,” he writes. “But, before they leave, it is almost as if some deep, primitive ritual takes over. They stop speaking and hold the patient’s hand in a loving gesture or touch.”

“Physical touch enables the body to relax and feel comfortable and protected,” writes psychoneuroimmunologist Dr Paul Pearsall in his book, Superimmunity. Human touch and close relationships are the key elements in building up body’s immunity.

Good medicine

Hugging is good medicine. It transfers energy, and gives the person hugged an emotional boost. It is a way of connecting with others, showing our affection and appreciation, valuing others, and of giving. All of these are positive, healthy, life-enhancing emotions.

Positive touching is also known to change blood chemistry. According to a study carried out by the Touch Research Institute, US, touch lowers the output of the stress hormone, cortisol. When cortisol dips, there’s a surge of two “feel-good” brain chemicals, serotonin and dopamine.

Even 10 minutes of handholding a day can relieve stress. Physical touch increases the body’s oxytocin levels. “Oxytocin promotes feelings of affection and care-taking,” explains Dr Vijay Shastri, a scientist who has participated in several clinical and bio-equivalence studies. Synthetic oxytocin has also been used to treat depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Survival expanded

Anthropologists believe that our survival depends, in part, on our being touched. Writes Dr Ashley Montague in his book, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin: “During the 19th century more than half the infants in their first year of life regularly died from a disease called marasmus, a Greek word for ‘wasting away.'” In the 1920s the death rate for infants under one year of age in various foundling institutions throughout the US was nearly 100 per cent.

After World War II, when studies were undertaken to discover the cause of marasmus, it was found that babies lacked human touch. What a child requires is to be handled, and carried and caressed, and cooed, even if it isn’t breastfed. Recognising this, many hospitals introduced regular regimen of “mothering” in their wards. The results were dramatic. The mortality rate fell to less than 10 per cent by 1938.

Hugging and touching have been highly undervalued in our society. Most of us are touch-deprived. Lack of physical connection affects us. Psychologists say that this creates a sense of deprivation that often translates itself into another less effective form of self-nurture like comfort foods. Says family therapist Dr Virginia Satir: “Every human being needs four hugs per day merely to survive, eight hugs per day to maintain oneself at a strong emotional level, and 12 hugs per day to grow and become a better person.”

The touch-good feel

Touch, therefore, means a lot. A hug makes you feel good.

The skin is the largest organ – no wonder why a hug can cover a lot of skin and give the message that you care. It is also a form of communication. It can say things you don’t have words for.

But, guess what the best part of a hug is? You usually can’t give one without getting one!

The Power of Hugging

Hugging make us feel better about ourselves and our surroundings. It also has added benefits that you may never have thought of. It –

  • Feels good
  • Dispels loneliness
  • Overcomes fear
  • Opens doors to feelings
  • Builds self-esteem [Wow, She actually wants to hug me!!]
  • Fosters altruism [I can’t believe it, but I actually want to hug that old son-of-a-gun]
  • Slows down aging [huggers stay young longer]
  • Helps curb appetite [we eat less when we are nourished by hugs and when our arms are busy wrapped around others]
  • Fights insomnia.
Gayatri Pagdi
Gayatri Pagdi is a Mumbai-based health journalist. Her areas of interest include emotional, mental and spiritual health.


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