Tue | Apr 24, 2018

Michael Abrahams | The importance of touch

Published:Monday | April 16, 2018 | 12:03 AM
Abrahams

Several months ago, while hanging out with a female friend of mine, I noticed that she was not her usual self. She was subdued and distant.

The next day, she called and told me that she realised that she had been feeling out of sorts the day before, and was now aware of the reason for it. She explained to me that she was touch deprived. Up to that point, I had never thought about the concept of touch deprivation. I knew that sleep and sex deprivation can make you cranky, but I had never thought about touch. But my friend should know what she was talking about. She is a psychologist.

Touch is much more important to us than we know. The skin is our largest organ, and foetuses begin to develop touch receptors at eight weeks, so it should not be surprising that touch is important in our lives. Touching is actually essential for optimum health.

But the sense of touch is complex. We are able to feel whether something is hard or soft, smooth or rough, or hot, cold, or in-between. Each type of tactile stimulation activates a different region of the brain, affecting our emotions and our responses. So, depending on the type of touch, we may feel soothed or hurt, comfortable or distressed, or calm or angry.

Our reactions are also dependent on who is doing the touching, and their energy. Your lover may touch you and you respond by wanting to kiss him, while you may run into your ex, and he touches you the same way, but you may feel like plunging a knife into his crotch.

Touch that is not inappropriate is crucial for our well-being. This is not just theoretical. It has been found to be so as a result of decades of scientific research.  Being touched comfortingly or affectionately triggers the release of hormones that may decrease your heart rate and lower you blood pressure, stimulate the hippocampus (an area of the brain that is central to memory), and drive the release of a host of substances that are associated with positive and uplifting emotions.

It has been documented that touch raises the level of oxytocin, a substance that gives you a sense of well-being and aids with bonding, in your body, while decreasing the level of cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone, meaning that it is released in response to stress. When faced with acute stress, cortisol is beneficial to our bodies, as it helps us to cope with, and recover from, the situation. However, when cortisol and other stress hormones are chronically elevated, the effects on the human body can be deleterious, contributing to anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain and memory and concentration impairment. As my grandmother used to say, “Too much of one thing good for nothing.”

And the positive effects of touch, and negative effects of touch deprivation, are seen throughout all stages of life. Babies who are touch deprived have higher levels of cortisol, and their brain and physical growth lag behind others who are regularly touched and cuddled. Premature babies who are touched frequently thrive more than their counterparts who are not. Massage has been found to be a useful therapeutic tool for adolescents who suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).Touch can also boost your immune system. One study showed that people who were regularly touched and hugged were more resistant to a cold virus than those who were not. Also, touch has been shown to decrease the response to pain in people of all ages.

Because touch has such a profound effect on us, physicians and other professionals in the field of health are uniquely positioned to maximise the effects of touch on our fellow human beings. Not surprisingly, a 2013 study in the Journal of Participatory Medicine showed that when doctors touch their patients in a comforting way, they are thought of as being more empathetic, a characteristic that is linked to better health outcomes. For example, researchers found that perceived doctor empathy actually decreases patients’ sensitivity to pain.

Being a medical practitioner, I can attest to the value of touch. Being a gynaecologist, touching my patients is inevitable, but I have learnt about the value of touch outside of a clinical examination. I recall an elderly patient whom I performed a hysterectomy on several years ago. After being discharged from the hospital, as she walked off the ward, she stopped, turned to me and asked, “Do you know why I chose you to do my operation”? “No,” was my response.

She replied, “Because when I came to see you and I was leaving, you gave me a hug.” I smiled and hugged her again to express my gratitude.

I have also learnt to be mindful of the fact that not everyone appreciates being touched, and it is important to read facial expressions and body language while you make physical contact with someone. For example, some survivors of sexual abuse are very uncomfortable being touched.

The effects of touch can be powerful and far-reaching. It is of importance in all aspects of our lives: cognitive, emotional, developmental, behavioural, from in the womb into old age, if we live that long. Never underestimate the power of even a single touch.

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.