As some of you know, the last couple of weeks have been a time of transition for my family. My 93 y.o. father-in-law was hospitalized for pneumonia and now is in hospice care. As his children and I lean into this new reality, I am more aware than ever before of the importance of healthy touch.
When medicine was not controlling my father-in-law’s pain, we rubbed his back. When he could not move his body, we learned how to adjust his position in bed. When he was not able to reach for his water, we held his cup for him.
Touching his hand, stroking his head, rubbing his arm: these small acts seem to make a big difference in my father-in-law’s comfort. Knowing that we are in the room and willing to help allows him to rest easier and feel less anxious, especially when he cannot hear well or is too tired to open his eyes.
I see the importance of touch across the spectrum. Whether we use touch to calm a panicked animal, to care for sick person, or to convey our love, touch supports healing and development.
Many of us remember reading in our Psychology 101 class about Harry Harlow’s study with Rhesus monkeys. While the primary focus was on the maternal-child bond, one observation from these experiments was the importance of touch on the lives of these baby monkeys. Baby monkeys who did not receive touch from their mother and instead were presented with inanimate, surrogate mothers either became deeply, emotionally disturbed or died. There is no substitute for loving touch.
The study of touch has come a long way since Harlow’s experiments. Current brain research shows the relationship between touch and feeling connected. When humans are touched by other humans, oxytocin, or the tend and befriend hormone, is released into the brain. Oxytocin makes us feel good and creates a sense of well-being.
Touch also stimulates the immune system. Hugs, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina, stimulate the thymus gland, which in turn, encourages more white blood cells to be released into the blood stream. More white blood cells means more germs fighters. A hug is like a shot in the arm of an immune-boosting drug with the added bonus of being comforted. So go forth and give hugs (with permission). We all need them.
Sending a <<hug>> to all,