The Power of Touch

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It was with a mixture of dread and yearning that Nicky sought out those 30 minutes a month. She knew it always ended in tears and yet, afterwards, she felt the release of an unspoken burden.

Nicky Myburgh immigrated to Australia three years ago as a newly divorced, single mother with two children and a container full of determination to make the move work. She knew one friend when she arrived in Sydney, but that person had her own family, stresses and challenges to face, so contact was limited.

Shortly after Nicky found a job in accounting, her employers introduced a monthly neck and back massage as a perk. She jumped at the opportunity of this mid-morning break, but was completely thrown by what happened. Instead of dozing off as her taut muscles were kneaded, she dissolved into tears, unable to hold back a tidal wave of emotion.

Years later she can put it in perspective. ‘I was so tense and stressed. I felt I needed to at least appear to be in control. As soon as I let my resistance down with the wonderful, kind, gentle masseuse who encouraged me to 'relax, let go, loosen up' - that was it for me.'

The power of touch is enormous. After all, that is how we move through life: we feel our way. Just imagine never, ever being touched... no hand on the shoulder, no pat on the back, no physical link with any other living thing?

It is one of our most vital senses, so vital in fact that without it we wither. Consider the children found in Romania's notorious orphanages at the fall of Communism. Known as Ceausescu's Children (after the country's brutal leader) they were discovered strapped to beds in state hospitals, undersized, underfed and underloved. They were victims of not only the dictator's bloody mindedness to increase Romania's population at whatever cost (contraception was outlawed) but, more massively, of neglect. Abandoned and/or orphaned, they ended up in state institutions.

Their condition, known as ‘failure to thrive', was directly linked to an almost complete absence of affection, positive touch or human interaction.

One report quotes an aide worker who walked into a completely silent ward: ‘The babies had learnt that there would be no response to their crying so they simply, eventually, stopped crying altogether.'

This does not surprise Sister Francis, chief professional nurse. She was responsible for introducing Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC), where the mother and baby have constant skin-to-skin contact after birth, to the hospital. It has shown remarkable results from critically small premature babies to normal birth-weight babies. Touch, after all, is the first sense a baby experiences as it is plucked or pulled from the womb.

‘It's more than just physical - so much of it is emotional,' says Sister Francis. ‘Our skin needs to be touched and caressed. There is an enormous amount of bonding that takes place with touch.'

While she cannot explain just what physiological processes take place she does know, from witnessing it over and over again in the 11 years at the KMC unit, that one's total health is affected by touch.

‘It's basically the love that is carried over. In previous years, what we would call 'miscarriages', very tiny, premature babies, would be left to die. Now we see, just by placing those babies skin-to-skin, they start surviving,' she says.

Skin-to-skin contact should be the obvious choice for any mother and new baby. It's an insult to a mother not to expect her to do it, but Western cultures and health systems have disempowered us. There is no science to support the separation of mother and child - it is an accident of history.

But what is it about touch that makes it so valuable to life? Yes, the skin is the largest organ, it is our shield from external harm, it is the key to sexual attraction. And it is the highway through which touch is translated into something meaningful.

We are our brains. After all, the brain, when it's developing starts by being a sensory organ that evolves into a social organ. It translates sensations it receives into relationships.

Researchers have found that the absence of touch can lead to brain damage. Monkeys, kept in isolation at the University of Illinois in the US, were found to suffer brain damage, while those living in an un-tampered natural colony remained unaffected.

Studies have also shown that if the mother's touch is removed (for as little as 45 minutes in rats) the infant lowers its need for food to keep itself alive until the mother returns. Touch reassures an infant that it is safe; it seems to give the body the go-ahead to develop normally.

Our Western society has become far less tactile. Children are very seldom rocked to sleep on backs - instead they are put in a cot with a cuddly teddy, a nod from us that our basic instinct acknowledges they need the comfort of touch.

Massage therapists commonly experience tears on their massage beds as women, who have not been touched by their own husbands for years, break down when they feel that therapist's hands on their skin. These women will spend thousands of dollars each year on massage - just to be touched.

People thrive when touched, but do not get touched enough. There are those who do not know how uptight they are until someone puts their hands on them. It's like a massive sigh is released from the body. Sadly, it's often as we age, that touch dwindles. Children feel awkward hugging a frail frame or shy away from kissing grandma's wrinkled, whiskery cheeks. We fail to see that older people are just younger ones in older bodies, that we feel the same person at 12 or 70, even if we are a little stiffer or slower or have lost the color of our hair.

But while we may leave the older generation alone and silently crying out for contact, animals make no such discrimination. Dogs bring elderly people back into the present. So many of them live in the past. And research shows that an interaction with an animal reduces the stress hormone cortisol.

Dogs can bridge a gap or barrier that we can't even fathom. A dog can break through the boundaries around tactile defensive patients (people who do not like to touch or be touched). They see inside. We see the external.

It may be something you simply don't think about, but just imagine how you would feel if no one ever touched you with care again.
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