The power of touch

August 12, 2020 · Print This Article

What are your first thoughts of the day, I wonder? The thoughts that are on your mind as you wake up. Maybe it’s wondering what the time is. It might be thoughts associated with a dream or a continuation of the worry you took to bed with you the night before.

I woke up a few mornings ago with the unexpected – and apparently unprovoked – thought that I hadn’t touched anyone for a long time, for over five months. I hadn’t actually had physical contact, with another person, of any sort, for all of that time – no hugs, no friendly hand on the shoulder, no formal handshakes. And in that waking moment I realised what an important part of being human that act of touching is, and how much I miss it. I have seen members of my family and some friends, but we haven’t touched. We have observed the two-metre rule – now one metre – as instructed.

We use touch to communicate so many positive things – love, reassurance, comfort, warning, empathy, encouragement, excitement. In fact, if we took away the often imperfect words and left people with only touch, they would do a pretty good job of communicating. And it has been done. Research has demonstrated an over 70 per cent success rate in the interpretation of a touch – and that was with the recipient blindfolded. This was the case for negative emotions such as anger as well as for the more positive ones.[1]

Not only does touch communicate things that words might struggle to do, it appears that it can have a profound effect. It has been shown to lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol that can work to suppress the immune system. It can also work to increase levels of well-being hormones like oxytocin.[2]

In this age of coronavirus – while we are keeping our distance from each other and our hands to ourselves – medical professionals have a need to touch those they are treating as they hopefully bring healing. But they are doing it behind an armour of respirators, face shields, gowns and gloves, to protect themselves from this virulent disease. Christ, in the healings that are recorded in the gospels, did not follow this protocol – as the Son of God he did not need to – but his ministry was one characterised by touch. He communicated his empathy, his love and his compassion through touch. He touched lepers  – and leprosy had no known cure at the time.[3] People did not touch lepers. A leper would have been untouched for as long as it was obvious they had the disease, so feeling touch would have been a remarkable moment for them. Christ touched the blind man at Bethsaida, having mixed his spit with some earth and smeared it on the man’s eyes.[4] He lifted Peter’s wife’s mother from her sick bed.[5]

The absence of touch is an unseen casualty of this pandemic. When we, once again, have the opportunity to reach out and hold a hand, rest a hand on a shoulder, embrace a friend, we should not hold back. Letters, cards, emails and texts can be a wonderful support but the power of touch can be a healing power that we all have. It might not eradicate the illness or injury but it communicates those positive emotions of love, compassion and empathy that Christ shared with the broken people around him.

Maggie Mitchell

Maggie is an editor at Because

[1] Hertenstein, Holmes, McCullough & Keltner. The communication of emotion via touch.

[2] Uvnas-Moberg & Petersson. Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth and healing.

[3] The Bible, Matthew 8:2-3

[4] The Bible, Mark 8:22-25

[5] The Bible, Matthew 8:14-15


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