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Studies have shown that our sense of touch is integral to our whole well-being. Whether it’s a hug, a brush of an arm, a simple touch on the cheek, a pat on the back, or a full body massage, we humans need that tactile skin cell-to-nerve communication that touch provides in order to feel alive.

One of my childhood friends didn’t like to be touched. Shy and introverted, she’d stiffen at the first sign of a hug, putting her hands out in front of her body like a football player blocking a pass. Her skin, she’d say, felt as if it was crawling away from her body like a reptile shedding its scales, except that she didn’t want her epidermis to grow back even if it left her bare and exposed.

She was later diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

Merrymen Magazine - Subscribe Vol. 2, Touch

The Science of Touch

When someone lays a hand on our fine layer of epidermis, the nerve endings and receptors in our skin send electrochemical signals to our brains via the somatosensory system.

Part of the sensory nervous system, the somatosensory, or “touch sense,” is designed to recognize all tactile stimuli. Not only does it relay pain, pressure and warmth, it responds with reactionary behavioural responses, i.e. goosebumps on our flesh, the heat rising or blush on our cheeks, that fluttering feeling in our hearts, and even laughter, especially from those who are ticklish.

Researchers have also found that human touch is important in balancing, restoring and managing our moods.

Holding a person’s hand or petting a cat or dog has been shown to decrease the stress hormone cortisol and increase the release of oxytocin, known as the “cuddle hormone,” which helps to enable trust and make a person feel closer to another.

Studies have also shown how touch stimulates the orbital frontal cortex of the brain, which is said to respond to smell and taste, therefore proving the adage that all our senses are connected.

Merrymen Magazine Volume 2 - Touch by Kristin Froneman

Making the Connection at Birth

The importance of touch is no more apparent than at birth. A newborn needs immediate skin-on-skin contact to be able to process connectedness and attachment to its mother or caregiver.

In his book, Touch, the Science of the Hand, Heart and Mind, neuroscientist David J. Linden writes that people who are deaf or blind from birth will, for the most part, develop normal bodies and brains and can live fruitful lives. However, depriving a newborn from social touch, as was seen with babies born in Romanian orphanages in the 1980s and ‘90s, can be disastrous.

“Growth is slowed, compulsive rocking and other self-soothing behaviours emerge, and if not rectified, emergent disorders of mood, cognition, and self-control can persist through adulthood,” – David J. Linden

When We Feel, We Feel Better

Touch has been shown to be an important tool in healing. Many skin-contact therapies such as massage have been shown to have effective results in treating not only physical ailments, but mental and psychological issues as well.

Massage and other touch therapies have been used to help promote calmness and positive thoughts in children with ADHD and as an aid for smoking cessation.

Touch is also used to help women relax during pregnancy and labour and with those in palliative care. It’s used to treat mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, insomnia, headaches, cancer symptoms, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the list goes on.

After some psychological counselling and touch-based therapy, my friend has finally been able to get over her aversion to touch. She now greets me with a big hug, which in turn helps me feel one of the most important emotions of them all: loved.

“Too often we underestimate the power of touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” – Leo Buscaglia

One of my childhood friends didn’t like to be touched. Shy and introverted, she’d stiffen at the first sign of a hug, putting her hands out in front of her body like a football player blocking a pass. Her skin, she’d say, felt as if it was crawling away from her body like a reptile shedding its scales, except that she didn’t want her epidermis to grow back even if it left her bare and exposed.

She was later diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

Arts & Culture | Vol.2

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