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The Language of Touch

The Language of Touch

Touch, till you taste all the time we are wasting alone, waiting here. –Lifehouse

Touch is the first language we learn and the only truly universal communication that humans share, if you don’t count math. Babies who are not held and touched regularly do not thrive, the absence of physical contact is as severe as withholding food in their development. Skin to skin contact between babies and their mothers is now the standard of care in neo-natal units worldwide because of its healing impact. Studies in orphanages demonstrate the same conclusions: babies who are given more eye contact and physical touch develop better and have less illness. How tragic to be the infant in the control group.

It isn’t just in babies that the power of touch transforms our emotional, mental and physical health. People suffering from physical ailments like fibromyalgia experienced a significant reduction in pain with the addition of therapeutic touch. In a study of Alzheimer’s patients, a minimal addition of therapeutic touch for 20 minutes reduces both the severity and frequency of behavioral symptoms of the disease. Patients became present when touched for only 5 minutes at a time.

New evidence shows that even brief contact produces immediate changes in how people react and process information. Students who are touched on their back or arm by their teachers were twice as likely to participate in class. Human touch from a doctor to a patient actually leaves people with the impression that their visit lasted twice as long. In the sports arena, all the high fives and body bumping is actually improving athletic performance. Touching the people we live with, even a brief massage is correlated with decreased depression symptoms and stronger relationships.

Touch wakes up the prefrontal areas of our brain which control our ability to relax and emote. Holding someone creates a surge of oxytocin, a hormone that helps create a sensation of trust, and to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Even a touch to the shoulder sends a message to the brain that is heard louder than words of support. Touch tells us that there is someone at our backs to share the load which is one of the primary impetuses for human relationships. “We are hardwired to distribute our problem solving across brains,” according to James Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.

Nowhere is this language of touch more powerful than in your own home. Seemingly small gestures like a kiss goodbye every morning translates into better traffic safety and increased earnings for the one being kissed. My husband and I have instituted a new ritual upon returning home each evening, of holding each other tightly, inhaling and grounding each other in our scent and resetting our breathing together. It only takes a few minutes but has seriously reduced the irritability that evening used to provoke. I have worked to incorporate this holding in my relationships with my children and have seen similar results. Their response to my physical approach tells more than their words ever could about what is happening with them and between us.

Spend a few days consciously aware of how many times you are touched in the day and how many times you reach out to touch someone else. Notice how even the smallest of physical exchanges impact how you feel in the moment and with the person you connected with. I envy the European cultures’ ease in leaning forward and brushing cheeks with almost everyone they meet. Becoming more fluent in the language of touch may be all we need to transform our lives.

Read more: Health, Love, Making Love Sustainable, Mental Wellness, Relationships, Sex

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Wendy Strgar

Wendy Strgar, founder and CEO of Good Clean Love, is a loveologist who writes and lectures on Making Love Sustainable, a green philosophy of relationships which teaches the importance of valuing the renewable resources of love, intimacy and family.  In her new book, Love that Works: A Guide to Enduring Intimacy,  she tackles the challenging issues of sustaining relationships and healthy intimacy with an authentic and disarming style and simple yet innovative adviceIt has been called "the essential guide for relationships."  The book is available on ebook.  Wendy has been married for 27 years to her husband, a psychiatrist, and lives with their four children ages 13- 22 in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.


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5:51AM PDT on Aug 24, 2012


3:10PM PDT on Aug 22, 2012


5:08AM PST on Nov 15, 2011

Thanks for the article.

2:17PM PDT on Oct 26, 2011

I was really interested in what you say about teachers making physical contact with students, and how reinforcing it can be - I think those of us who teach have been made very cagey about touch, which is a shame really.

3:57AM PDT on Jul 17, 2010

how much people touch differs a lot here in Europe. Italy, France (specially the south), Spain and Greece...these are countries with the warmest people.

8:19PM PDT on Jun 10, 2010

I think people are afraid of touch these days, refering to it as flirting even if it is with the other sex. But sometimes it is only a kind gesture!

12:34AM PDT on Jun 6, 2010

My husband and I touch all the time, we enjoy holding hands, hugging, cuddling, etc - it makes us feel closer emotionally and contributes to a great day overall.

12:13AM PDT on Jun 3, 2010

Love this article, couldn't agree more. i support this and the message that To Write Love on Her Arms conveys; love is the cure.

11:26AM PDT on Jun 2, 2010

My husband and I spend a few precious moments in the morning just holding one another. Such mornings makes the day brighter, and I feel closer to him. However, the evenings are different since we usually go to bed at different times. Unless I cuddle with him on the couch as he watches TV, we hardly seem to touch, and I go to bed feeling empty. Starting today instead of simply saying "Hello, hon, how was your day?," I will be ready to welcome him home with open arms.

3:15PM PDT on Jun 1, 2010

Unfortunately 'the European cultures’ ease in leaning forward and brushing cheeks with almost everyone they meet' is too present in Mediterranean cultures and not enough in Northeuropean cultures.
In Italy is so normal like breathing, for example! In Germany is a tabu.

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