Feeling isolated?

Here’s how to tap into the power of physical contact.

E VERY NIGHT FOR 34 YEARS HARRIETT CLARK AND HER HUSBAND WOULD HOLD HANDS AS THEY DRIFTED OFF TO SLEEP. WHEN HE DIED SIX YEARS AGO, ONE OF THE THINGS CLARK MISSED THE MOST WAS THIS REASSURING HAND CLASP AT THE END OF THE DAY. To soothe the loss, the Dublin, Ohio, resident sometimes found it helpful to hold her own hand as she lay in bed at night. “That was very comforting in a strange way,” the 77-year-old recalls.

For Pollv Armstrong, 67, it was divorce that brought about the sudden loss of touch. “When I was married, touching was an automatic part of my life. And I don’t just mean sex, but being hugged, being touched, having my husband put his hand on my shoulder when he walked past me in the kitchen,” remembers Armstrong, a psy-chologist from Bethesda, Maryland. “When I got divorced and that was not avail-able anymore, it just felt so disconnected and lonely.”

Though we seldom talk about it, touch is as essential to our well-being as fresh air or sunshine. Unfortunately many of us do not get enough of this physical and psychological nutrient, and the deficit tends to get worse as we age. If we are single and do not have children or grandchildren living nearby, we can go weeks or even months without receiving an affectionate hug. This lack of contact adds a level of physiological distress to the social isolation that so often goes with getting older. Massage therapists and other professionals call this phenomenon “skin hunger.”

A growing body of research suggests that safe, caring touch is good not only for the body but for the mind and spirit as well. It reduces stress in the most primal of ways, communicating far more deeply than words a sense of concern, comfort, and connection.

For example, massage has been shown to help premature babies gain weight and flourish in other ways, too. Though most of this research focused on the infants, one study looked at the effects on the volunteers who provided the massage, in this case men and women in their 70s and 80s. The researchers, to their surprise, found that those giving the massage benefitted just as much as those receiving it.  “We knew that most of the volunteers had lost a spouse and had been experiencing significant touch deprivation,” says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Re-search Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. After just six weeks the massage givers reported improvements in a variety of areas. Not only were they experiencing less depression and anxiety and making fewer visits to the doctor’s office, but they were telephoning friends more often and even drinking less coffee. “So it wasn’t just the biological effect; it had a social or psychological effect as well,” Field says.

In other studies, massage has been shown to boost immune activity, ease back pain, alleviate nausea in cancer patients, and reduce agitation in those with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers don’t yet understand exactly how it works, but Field theorizes that massage with moderate pressure stimulates pressure receptors under the skin; this stimulation then triggers a significant lowering of stress hormones.

But you don’t have to have a massage to access the healing power of touch; even casual, everyday touch can have profound effects. For instance, a Purdue University study found that students who were briefly touched on the hand when checking out library books reported more positive attitudes toward life than students who had not been touched. A similar study in Oxford, Mississippi, indicated that waitresses who casually touched their patrons got bigger tips than those who had not. Indeed, even contact with an animal can heal. According to new research from the University of Missouri-Columbia, the simple act of petting a beloved dog releases a cascade of feel-good hormones in humans, including serotonin and oxytocin. But if touch is such a panacea, why aren’t doctors prescribing foot massages instead of pharmaceuticals? Why don’t friends stay in for back rubs instead of going out for coffee?

A big part of the answer seems to be cultural. “We live in a tactophobic culture, one that is very low-touch compared with many others,” laments Janet Kahn, Ph.D., a medical sociologist at the University of Vermont. “Our skin is our largest sense organ, and we ignore it incredibly in this culture.” For example, in many Middle Eastern countries businessmen commonly greet each other with full-body hugs and even walk down the street arm in arm. In this country, by contrast, unless it takes place on the football field, almost any physical contact between straight men is strictly taboo.

Perhaps it all goes back to our roots: our Puritan fear of sexuality and our pioneer need to claim our own space. On the other hand, a constant barrage of erotic imagery in our media, along with sensationalized stories about pedophilia and other kinds of abuse, persuades us that all touch is ultimately about sex. The upshot is, from adolescence onward most Americans regard touch with great suspicion. Just how extreme is the American taboo against touch, even among couples? Consider the results of a cross-cultural study observing couples in various countries interacting in cafés. In Puerto Rico the couples touched each other an average of 180 times per hour; in France they touched 110 times an hour. In the United States the average couple touched only twice. ( 2 that is!)

But even within our hands-off culture, individuals vary widely in how comfortable they are with touch. Madelon Timmons, 71, of Columbus, Ohio, finds herself at the low-touch end of the spectrum—largely, she believes, because of her upbringing.

“In my family of origin, like many others of that generation, we rarely touched,” she says. “There was very little display of outward emotion, good or bad.” On the other end of the spectrum is Esther Gelman, 74, of Potomac, Maryland, whose parents got massages and “took the waters” in hot tubs. She says she feels best when she has a full-body massage once a week.

Even if you’re shy, you can increase the touch you experience . It might feel risky at first—after all, you’re up against the weight of a cultural taboo and perhaps a lifetime of touch avoidance. So accept that you’re going to feel awkward and make the decision to do this anyway. The reward will be more than worth it. To go out and get a massage or a hug from a friend can really change the way you feel,” says Armstrong . “It will make you feel good about being alive.”

                                                               Susan C. Roberts, M.S.W,

                                                                        is a psychotherapist and school

                                                                        counselor in Washington, D.C.


AARP The Magazine

Jan. Feb. 2006 (pgs.30-1)

601 E. St. NW,

Washington, DC 20049


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