We can live without many things, but we can’t live without touch. When we are not touched we might become sad, irritable, and aggressive. Touch is what creates a sense of safety, connection and trust in our life; touch is soothing and pleasurable, and it cultivates a space of inner peace. Just think of how calm and connected we feel to someone when we’ve shared a long tight hug. It is healing.
In fact, during sleep we naturally place our hands on the parts of our body that are in need of soothing and healing. For example, when we place them on our chest, perhaps it’s because we need more emotional understanding and healing of emotions; when we place them above our head – we seek deeper spiritual connection; when we place them on our shoulders – we might feel too burdened, exhausted or with lack of energy; when on our stomach – perhaps some feelings of anger; when between our thighs – some fear or feeling lonely; when we hug ourselves – we need more affection and support from our loved ones; and when we place them in between our head and pillow – there is tranquillity within us. Just like all parts of our body, and all feelings, touch too carries within itself messages, it has its own unique language of movement.
Touch is not just what we share with another person – it is a sense we share with ourselves.
As we transformed into a world of separation and online connections, it’s become much harder to nurture our insatiable need for touch. Of course, nothing can ever replace the touch of a loved one’s hand, an embrace from a friend, a kiss from our partner or even sitting next to a stranger. A lack of touch amplifies feelings of disconnection and loneliness, which can adversely affect our overall wellbeing. We need and crave human contact; this is natural as this is both an emotional and physical need based on our psychology and biology. This current period that we are facing, in a global state of distance and/or isolation, can allow us to reconnect to ourselves and learn to share the sense of touch with ourselves. So that we feel better. Because we rarely focus on the intimacy that lives inside of us. We can do this through massage or even feeling how parts of our skins feel as they touch water in the shower or a fabric (I discuss ways on how, below). In fact, this is a great part of self-care which has long-lasting benefits that will flow through our interconnections with other people.
The Human Need for Touch.
Touch is the first sense that we develop. As babies, we hold onto our blankets and our stuffed animals, we suck on our thumbs, we touch our feet and we are held in cuddles. In fact, being held in our family’s cuddles is one of the most important indicators of a healthy self-esteem later on in life. We seek softness because it makes us feel safe and secure, and because skin-to-skin contact is incredibly soothing. This is how we also learn to calm ourselves as it releases oxytocin and lowers cortisol levels, thereby reducing our stress levels and making us feel good. This dynamic continues into adulthood: we know what we like even if we don’t have the words, or science, to explain why. Often times, we look to satisfy our need for touch unconsciously: we hold our own hands, we cuddle in bed or comforting wraps, we look for a kiss or hug from a loved one, we hold our tea cups while warm, we walk closer to other people on the street, or sit next to strangers in the train.
Touch itself is a language – it gives us intimate insights into what is safe versus unsafe, into what is pain versus pleasure.
When someone touches us and we move away, it is because we feel uncomfortable: it signals a feeling of uneasiness or unsafety. On the other hand, if our muscles relax and we settle into the comfort of the touch, we are ultimately saying, “I feel good, I feel safe.” This same language translates to our self-touch and it corresponds to our compassion response. When we touch ourselves gently, we are communicating tenderness. And if it is not gently, we are saying something like, “I am wrong, I messed up.”
And let’s take this even further. Scientific research shows that physical touch correlates to decreased violence: a child who’s been deprived of sufficient physical touch and cuddles, and of mother-child bonding, experiences more aggression, emotional disturbances and even violent behaviour in adulthood. Research also correlates physical touch to other important areas of life such as, greater trust between individuals, economic gain, decreased illness and stronger immune systems, more emotional intimacy, increased confidence, greater learning engagement, and overall wellbeing.
Touch has a powerful impact on our emotions. Studies show that just a gentle brush of a woman’s hand on her partner’s shoulder can boost his ability to love, his confidence, and his own expression of affection. One of the best ways for couples to reconnect is to hug and embrace each other, because this also creates a sense of trust and emotional intimacy between them.
Think about this: when someone is sad, we hug them long and tight, and they feel better; when we feel stressed or just want to calm ourselves, we caress ourselves or rub our hands across our arms, or belly, which is a great soothing technique. In trust building exercises, people are guided to hold hands, and when couples need to reconnect or rekindle their bond, they are guided to hug one another more often and/or dance together.
In long-term relationships, where the passion has gone, one of the first things to do is touch; it is awakening your body to remember how it feels next to the person who you fell in love with. Skin to skin, beside them. And the body remembers.
George Kroustallis Photography
Ways to Nurture Self-Touch.
While there is nothing that can replace a loved one’s touch of hand, a hug from a friend, a kiss from our partner or just sitting beside another person, there are still ways to nurture our sense of touch, no matter what physical circumstances we find ourselves in.
To begin, start by focusing on skin contacts and what qualities of touch you enjoy. For example, where do you like to be touched: hands, feet, neck, back, face, genitals, hair? If you are not sure, you can explore your body running down your fingers across your parts, applying different kinds of touch: firm pressure and then soft, nails and then fingertips, delicate circular motions and then linear, as well as experimenting with different temperatures and textures. This is called body mapping and cultivates intimacy with self, while also, building trust within yourself and new ways to explore what you enjoy. (And you can also explore these with your intimate partners to rekindle your connection, and read my piece on a couple’s exercise exploring and awakening the five senses.)
Find a few objects that you love to touch. It can be a nice fabric like silk, cotton or cashmere, or a book, or a fruit, or anything you like around the house. How does it feel on your skin; what makes this sensation comforting and pleasurable? Wear soft fabrics such as silk, satin or whatever you like. Explore various speeds and movements: fast versus slow touch on your hand, circular versus linear, back of palm versus front of palm.
Take a long shower or a hot bath – how does water feel on your skin? Showers and baths are also great for relieving stress: they inspire a sense of calmness by releasing our mental defences, and are also part of spiritual cleansing, and psychic protection.
Give yourself a massage. For example, gently rub your feet and apply lotion on them before bedtime – this is also a great ancient way of grounding and reconnecting you back to your physical body. Applying nail polish on your toes is another way of grounding actually, especially in red colour, as it unconsciously brings your focus do your feet throughout the day.
Additional ways of nurturing self-touch are: stretch different parts of your body and notice which ones feel the most relief; walk with bare feet; brush your hair and massage the scalp with fingers; experiment with self-pleasure; sleep naked in bed or try different fabrics against your skin; place your hands on your belly and focus on its movements as you breathe; explore how your body moves as you breathe by running fingers across it.
As you engage in all these exercises, notice the places of your face and body that we rarely, or even never, touch. Notice how you give and receive of yourself at the same time. Notice the feelings arising within you: how does physical contact with yourself makes you feel? Remember to be compassionate with your feelings and your needs. We are all human and it is our sense of touch that we can’t live without, it is natural, and we need to honour it, nurture it and cultivate it for our overall wellbeing.
Throughout history, a lot of shame and guilt has been associated with our sense of touch, and the body itself has been used as a vessel for both cultural and social control. The internalization of negative messages and feelings about our bodies, leads to negative affects on our overall wellbeing. The way to reclaim our sense of touch is to cultivate and nurture an environment within us based on compassion, tenderness, acceptance, value, care and pleasure, dependent on our own selves. Often times, we are perpetuated with ideas that these, and our need for touch, can only come from and be satisfied by external forces and external people. This is unhealthy, and it leads to entering into, or staying in relationships for the wrong reasons. When we take pleasure into our hands and learn to satisfy our own needs, we expand within our bodies, minds and emotional experiences. We reclaim our self. We become better partners and lovers in our intimate connections because we know what we like and what we need to be satisfied and fulfilled. This also makes us more discerning about choosing the right partner for us, leading us towards happier, healthier and more physically, emotionally and spiritually fulfilling relationships.
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Cover Art: Sotiris Bougas Photography