Revisiting the Healing Power of Touch

Nurturing Deeper Well-Being through Embodiment

Touch is one of the most basic human needs and yet many modern-day practices and attitudes are antithetical to the idea of touch, intimacy, and embodiment.

In my late twenties, I was employed as a duty manager at a well-known tourist hotel in Rotorua, New Zealand. One morning I arrived at work to hear that, tragically, an elderly gentleman from a Japanese tour group had passed away overnight due to a heart attack. There, in the main lobby, the man’s shocked wife sat silent and alone. The tour guides stood awkwardly nearby while the rest of the tour group huddled together on the opposite side of the room.

I was deeply moved by the woman’s isolation and aloneness so I approached her quietly and took a seat beside her — so close our legs were touching. Then, I gently reached over and took her hand in my own. For the next half hour, the two of us sat there in silence, holding hands, sharing each other’s space, and allowing her unspoken grief to be acknowledged and witnessed.

At a time when no words were possible — she spoke no English and my Japanese was very basic — it was gentle, compassionate touch that allowed us to be there with, and for, each other in our shared humanity.

It is impossible to overstate the immense benefits of welcome touch on our ability to thrive.

For decades, and around the world, researchers have shown that touch is not only a basic human need but also an essential element for our overall health and well-being. Studies have shown that touch can lower stress hormones such as cortisol while stimulating the production of endorphins, which are natural painkillers. Regular touch has also been linked to improved immune function, better sleep quality, reduced anxiety levels, and enhanced mental clarity.

When we engage in positive physical contact with others our bodies release oxytocin, commonly known as the “love hormone.” This natural chemical promotes feelings of trust, bonding, and relaxation.

On the other hand, evidence has shown that a lack of touch can lead to increased mental illness, emotional dysfunction, retarded development in children, and even death in infants.

Image by Olga Drach | Unsplash

Touch deprivation in the modern world

For millennia, our ancestors were fully embodied in the world; bare feet on the earth, wind and rain on the face, gathering and harvesting food, communal sleeping and eating. However, these days, most of how we interact is with our fingers and hands: our phone, our keyboard, our coffee cup, our remote control.

Technology has undoubtedly brought countless benefits to our lives, enabling us to connect with others across vast distances. However, it has also inadvertently created a profoundly touch-deficient society. The joyous act of cuddling or holding hands, the deep connection formed by in-person gatherings, the physical sensation of printed books and newspapers, the immensely tactile hobbies of knitting, woodturning, and gardening — many of these embodied activities have been replaced by fingertip scrolling, mental stimulation, and virtual connections. As we become more engrossed in our digital lives, the subtle beauty of gentle touch has faded into obscurity.

What’s more, societal norms have gradually discouraged physical affection in public spaces*. In our (understandable) desire to protect ourselves and others from unwanted touch, we have inadvertently demonised all forms of tenderness, comfort, and intimacy. This physical isolation has left us starved for genuine human connection, trapped within emotionally sterile societies that lack the natural comfort and connectedness of touch.

Finally, as our lives have become more insulated and indoor, we have detached ourselves from nature and the elements. We are largely shielded from the sensual experiences that nature offers; the feel of grass beneath our feet, the caress of a warm breeze against our skin, or the tactile joy of gathering food from its natural source.

Is this increasing disconnection affecting our health and well-being? A lot of research indicates, yes. Increases in loneliness and isolation, depression and anxiety, and disconnection and mistrust could all be reversed if we learned to become more embodied, tactile, and willing to accept warm touch as a vital element of our daily lives.

*Touch deficiency is most prevalent in the UK and USA. In many cultures, such as in France and Latin America, interpersonal touch is still relatively prevalent.

I am making 2024 the Year of Living Deeper and, this month, I am delving into the importance of embodiment, healing touch, and tactile interaction.

Join me on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn for regular tools and tips and be sure to subscribe to my monthly newsletter as we dive deeper into the joys of embodiment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *