“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” – Leo Buscaglia
(The following post entitled The Power Of Touch: A Touching Moment by Samantha Smithstein recently appeared on psychologytoday.com. To view it in its original format click on the link below.)
Recently in my San Francisco psychotherapy office, while expressing her anger and frustration, a typically reserved patient caught both of us off-guard by beginning to sob. The sobbing quickly turned into hyperventilating and I found myself watching her gasp for breath, bent over, unable to regain calm.
Without thinking much about it, I ceased to do what I was trained to do (stay sitting in my chair and not touch my patients), got up, walked over to her, and placed my hand gently but firmly in the center of her back. In the same voice I might use to help my child regain composure, I told her to take slow, deep breaths that she was going to be okay, and to focus on calming her body down. I kept my hand gently and firmly in place. Within the minute her breathing slowed, her body relaxed, and she was able to go back to talking about her feelings.
While my voice and instruction may have helped, and of course she might have just calmed herself down, there is evidence which suggests my hand on her back may have been just what the situation called for. Social scientists have shown for years that supportive touch can create positive outcomes, such as increased student participation when a teacher touches them on the back or arm, athletes performing better when they hug or high-five each other, and patients liking a doctor more if they are touched.
Positive touch can also decrease a negative experience. For example, when people are given a stressful task, if they had been holding hands or hugged beforehand they have lower blood pressure, lower heart rate and experience less stress than without that touch. The hand-holding or hugging actually decreases the stress hormone cortisol and increases the release of oxytocin, which promotes feelings of devotion, trust and boding. The Touch Research Institute has conducted research on therapeutic massage and found that it can alleviate depressive symptoms, improve immune function, enhance attentiveness, and even facilitate weight gain in preterm infants. Of course, in India therapeutic touch has been used for medical, psychological, and emotional benefits for centuries, through panchakarma.
So where does that leave us? For people in contact with friends, family, and children, it gives us important information how to be there for them in a way that is so simple but so powerfully effective in reducing stress, creating calm, health, happiness, and love. For those in professions where touch is typically discouraged due to past abuse, such as teaching, psychotherapy, coaching, and others, it gives us something to ponder. Certainly we won’t start cuddling with those who we work with – important boundaries must always be respected. But it may be that there are moments when a hand on the arm or back of someone who needs it is ultimately as effective – or even more so – than anything we might say. If this is true, then it’s worth thinking about.
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