Reach Out and Touch

I have been giving a weekly massage to a wonderful elderly woman, Marie, for many years. She’s a petit spitfire that broke boundaries for woman in the financial world when she was working. We were talking the other day in her home after her session about how she looks forward to our appointments.

“I’ve realized that it often the only time anyone touches me all week.” Marie explained. This is not a sad lonely old lady, she is vibrant woman, active in her bridge club, additionally she has many friends and family. But without a partner and because her family and grandchildren live out of the area I am her main source of touch. It got me thinking about touch and what we as adults are missing because of the invisible social boundaries we’ve created.

When the body becomes stressed it produces a hormone called “cortisol.” Increased cortisol levels lower immunity, affect sleep and decrease dopamine levels which affect moods. There have been many studies done how massage and touch decrease cortisol levels in the body. A The New York Times article recently discussed research that showed how the value of simple gestures of touch can change brain chemistry. Gestures such as a high five or reassuring squeeze of the arm can change how people feel and behave by promoting a feeling of calm and nurture throughout the body. But in the workplace, where most of us spend the larger portion of our day, most touch has become taboo. Many companies have strict policies about even very casual and friendly touch.

Not only in our workplace but also culturally Americans deprive themselves of touch much more than many other cultures. In many Latin American and African cultures, ordinary things like breast-feeding, co-sleeping and baby carrying are not even something discussed as if it were a choice. Children are naturally reared with a lot of touch and closeness. The idea that one would sleep separate from their baby is strange to them. In France and Italy individuals usually touch one another 100 times in the course of an hour conversation, while in the United States that drops to maybe ten times.

I watch my 4 year old son and his friends who love to hold hands, cuddle, hug and kiss. Eventually hormones and growing up will change them and I can’t help but feel a little sad that their openness and relaxed relationship to touch will change.

In the words of Diana Ross “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand, make this world a better place, if you can.” So go get some massage, give some hugs and next time if your inclined to give a shoulder rub to your loved one or touch someone’s arm thoughtfully, do it.

Nancy Shaw
In Touch Bodywork
133 East 58th Street
15th floor
New York, NY 10022
(212) 751-8300
[email protected]