“HOLD ME, PLEASE?”: EXPLORING THE POWER OF PHYSICAL TOUCH

Sometimes reaching out and taking someone’s hand is the beginning of a journey.  At other times, it is allowing another to take yours (Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration).

What does a warm embrace, a gentle back rub, a firm hand on your shoulder, or a welcoming shoulder to lay your head mean to you?  Classic psychology experiments by researchers like Bowlby (1952) and Harlow (1971, 1986) reveal our need for attachment to others with the same warm and welcoming skin, and similar habits.  So, why this need for attachment, as expressed through physical touch, become submerged in the lives of some individuals while it becomes the primary form of communication in others?  According to Dr. Gary Chapman, physical touch is only one of the five love languages that humans speak.  The others are quality time, acts of service, gifts and words of affirmation.  Sometimes, the Type A personalities among us get so caught up in accomplishing goals for each day that we view others who are sensitive to others’ feelings and who give a pat on the back, or gently hold the distressed party’s hand, as being soft, overly sensitive and unprofessional.  But, what if we reorient ourselves to the language of physical touch and the message that it communicates?  What if we learn the power of physical touch and become more deliberate about our need for it as well as offer it to others as a safe place to rest?  What would happen if we offer others a moment to hit the pause button on their rat race of a life and just relax with someone that they trust?

Research has undeniably demonstrated that physical touch is one of the “most essential elements of human development, a profound method of communication, a critical component of the health and growth of infants, and a powerful healing force”  (Zur & Nordmarken, 2017).  The evidence overwhelmingly supports the importance of tactile stimulation in the development and maintenance of physiological and psychological health in infants, children and adults.  From massage therapies, acupuncture, to numerous other forms of sensorimotor therapies, physical touch has always been an essential part of ancient healing practices. Although physical touch in the process of psychotherapy has generally been frowned upon, the research has continued to highlight the benefits to strengthening the client therapist relationship to “significantly increase a sense of empathy, sympathy, safety, calm, and comfort, as well as enhancing a client’s sense of being heard, seen, understood and acknowledged by their therapist” (Zur & Nordmarken, 2017).

But, we do not have to rely on the research studies to convince us of the power of physical touch to simply rejuvenate the exhausted soul.  I will share a recent experience to highlight that we are social scientists of our lives.  When you get really tired, what do you want to do?  Crawl into a comfortable position and just breathe.  Well, what if you are invited to snuggle on someone shoulder?  How would you respond?  Recently, I attended a birthday party after a really busy week and an even more frenetic day attempting to get to the event.  I was glad when we got there and settled down to eat and talk after the formalities were over.  As I shared with all the new people that I met, I heard stories of journey, of movements, of raising children, of loving spouses, of overcoming past reputations, and more.  We chatted freely over familiar comfort foods from our native land and for a few hours it seemed as if the pressure to perform, to prove yourself capable to your adopted hosts, had disappeared.  Every now and then, new faces would wander out of the house, surveying all the guests and greeting long time friends.  All the faces were new to me and the process of introductions and new chatter wore on me.  But, two familiar faces showed up later and I rose with a smile and greeted the newcomers with a warm embrace.  What did I communicate – “It’s good to see you.”  “I missed you since the last time that we were together.”  “You are welcome here.”  You would believe that I knew them as long-time friends as we seemed to pick up from where we had left off, but, being the newbie to this community, I had only met each of them once before.  But our warmth in parting made way for our warm embrace in greeting.  I was revived, again.  And again.  And again.

As the evening wore on, others arrived to the celebration and came out to the back patio to greet our small party.  The lady that had seemed to cover me as a mother hen when we first met had been seated next to me all afternoon.  Our conversations had flowed so naturally that it seemed normal that when she shifted her position and stretched her arm across the back of my chair, I simply leaned my exhausted head on her shoulder, and said “Thank you.”  She laughed and encouraged me to get comfortable and remain for a while.  Why?  Because the physical touch that we shared communicated the love between a mother and daughter in a way that confirmed her status of nurturing mother and mine as exhausted daughter.  It was the kind of snuggle space that reminded me of days curled up in my mother’s bed as a child just telling stories about the day’s events or dreaming of the future.  This simple inviting action gave an image to our audience of the power of the roles that we hold and the importance of creating a sense of community around a newbie.  You see, all the celebrants at this party, except for the next door neighbors, were Jamaican immigrants to the United States.  They had many decades worth of stories of challenges and success, of young love, waiting love and maturing love that followed each other for more than 4 decades from one country to another.  As we shared moments throughout the evening, I told my new friend who wanted to adopt me as her “daughter” that it was alright because my mother is not jealous of all the many mothers who have embraced me.  In fact, she is always thrilled when she gets a phone call or a visit from one of them when they travel to Jamaica because she has a mother’s eye witness testimony that I am well.

John Keats said that, “Touch has a memory.”  And, it is true.  Physical touch sought me and provided an answer for the exhaustion that I had been feeling that day.  It allowed me to pause and to put everything into perspective.  It has created warm memories for me of that event and those people.  So that next time when I see them, it will be as when we parted, warm embraces, firm handshakes and shoulders offered to rest a weary head.

Physical touch offers much more to human beings than we can understand.  Whisper a silent prayer to find out how you can touch someone’s life today.  The opportunities are endless.  It could be a husband who needs a back rub from his wife, or a wife needing a foot rub from her husband.  It may be a friend coming to sit with you in grief.  Or, a priest gently greeting you with a smile, a firm handshake and a warm embrace.  The touches may be gentle to provide calm and rest for the weary soul.  However, they may also be strong pulls of rescue and protection offered by first responders who are searching for earthquake victims in Mexico, or the victims of Hurricane Maria who will be pulled to safety by the grip of a strong arm.  In closing, John Joseph Powell, reminds us of this:

“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being.”

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