Goshen News, Goshen, IN

December 23, 2012

WHOLE FAMILY: Don’t underestimate the power of touch


— It was a regular afternoon, early summer I think. My day’s work in downtown Chicago was over, and I joined the masses headed for bus stops and el stations. Like spokes on a wheel, long lines of us would move away from the city’s center hub to our tiny patches of grass for the evening. We’d reverse and motor back, donning tennis shoes with business suits and clutching tall coffee cups, first thing next morning.

For the city, it was sort-of a quiet day. Slow, even. Early summer offered more late-afternoon sunlight and mild temperatures. The tourists in town for Navy Pier and stuffed pizza were, at 5 p.m., likely resting in their discount hotel rooms before a night out.

Shivering as I remembered winter commutes through steely, 20-degree, Windy-City misery, I welcomed the relative pleasantness.

But I was lonely.

Cities are funny like that. You have a million people in tight, tight spaces. You rarely have a square of sidewalk to yourself. Even pressed on all sides by other souls, however, we are lonely.

An important season of growth and development in my life, that was a time I needed to be alone — maybe even needed to suffer loneliness. But there were days I ached for companionship, for someone to lean into.

I decided to take the longer bus ride home, the 22 Clark. It would stop nearly every block, but I enjoyed the slow and gentle rocking and liked analyzing all the lonely people.

(Where DO they all come from? Where do they all belong?)

After a few stops, a rather, er, ample woman stepped aboard, lumbered to where I sat and dropped into the seat next to me. Her generous bottom spilled from her seat to mine; our upper arms smooched.

We were touching.

I stiffened.

The woman turned her round face to me and offered a brief smile, then opened a magazine and ignored me altogether for the rest of the ride.

I blinked. I could feel the warmth of her thigh and arm on my thigh and arm — just gentle pressure. Her touch wasn’t intentional, intimate or friendly. But it was warm and human. Comforting. So, with few other options, I decided to sink into it.

As the bus rumbled forward, I began to grow sleepy.

I suppose I could stick with my “tight space and ample rider” story about our touching that day, but when I briefly rested my head on her cushy arm, I whispered, “Thank you.”

SO, HUMAN TOUCH and our need for it. That’s my topic.

If you’re conscious, you probably recognize humans touch each other — and seem to need to. And while there’s much mindful touching — say, having a massage — much everyday touch is almost reflexive, isn’t it? Someone says hello and shakes your hand? Someone says goodbye and squeezes your arm?

Take a day and note all the touching you do or have done to you. You might be surprised.

Researchers in recent years have begun looking at the effects of touch on us humans. Turns out science once again proves common sense: When we touch each other in ways that convey comfort, encouragement and love, we thrive.

The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine notes that massage therapy, specifically, offers such benefits as facilitating weight gain in preterm infants; enhancing attentiveness; alleviating depressive symptoms; reducing pain; reducing stress hormones; and improving immune function.

Sounds good to me.

And the benefits, researchers are finding, are because of physiology:

“A warm touch seems to set off the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps create a sensation of trust, and to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” writes Benedict Carey in a New York Times article citing touch research findings. “In the brain, prefrontal areas, which help regulate emotion, can relax, freeing them for another of their primary purposes: problem solving. In effect, the body interprets a supportive touch as ‘I’ll share the load.’”

Aha! This all makes sense now. As a childbirth labor helper, touch is my middle name. And I don’t mean, necessarily, the big guns like massage or physical therapy or the laborious double-hip squeeze and its relatives.

So often it’s nothing more than holding hands or letting a woman rest her forehead on my shoulder.

My touches are saying, “I’ll share the load.”

So my challenge to all of us is to think some about our touches, both the ones we receive and the ones we give. What are they intended to communicate? Are they doing the job?

Clearly, we’re a hurting people who hurt people, too, and many of us have been affected by UNloving touch. It’s important to remember, when touching people, that their bodies might interpret things differently thanks to a terrible reprogramming done by abuse or molestation.

Be careful. Be respectful.

But touch! It’s not likely you’ll overdo it — especially with your children or aging parents or friends, even. You don’t know, even, who especially needs it on any given day.

Even just sitting on the bus.

Goshen News columnist Stephanie Price is a wife, mother, teacher, childbirth educator, midwife’s assistant and nursing student from Elkhart. Contact her at wholefamily@goshennews.com, 269-641-7249 or on Facebook at the page “Whole Family Column by Steph Price.”