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Don’t underestimate the power of touch

This was a key finding from the world’s largest study of touch which revealed results this week, linking positive attitudes to touch with greater well-being and lower levels of loneliness. The global study from BBC Radio 4’s All In the Mind programme and the Wellcome Collection, looked into public attitudes to and experiences of touch using responses from almost 40,000 people across 112 different countries in spring 2020. And the findings have new poignancy as Covid 19 continues to limit our potential for human contact. 

Most (72%) of the people who took the ‘Touch Test’, viewed interpersonal touch positively and 43% felt that society does not enable us to touch enough. Touch is one of the first senses to develop in the womb, before sight, hearing and taste, and even a simple touch on the arm can communicate a wide range of emotions. But we don’t always experience touch positively. For some of us touch is threatening or triggering, especially if we have been touched roughly or inappropriately in the past. 

Classically, talking therapies do not involve touch, although there is an increasing willingness among practitioners to value complimentary therapies such as acupuncture, massage and craniosacral therapy which involve touch and which support and nurture psychological healing. 

Anecdotally it appears that Coronavirus, and specifically lockdown, has starved many of us of regular opportunities for physical human contact. Some of us, tragically, have not been able to be with relatives at weddings or at death beds, times which would previously have included warm hugs or gentle holding. For those of us who live alone the absence of a handshake in the street or a touch on the arm in a shop may have reduced our touch quotient to almost zero. 

What can we do while touch is rationed? It may sound overly simple, but at the very least we can offer ourselves some gentle human contact. Physiotherapists and acupressure therapists teach their clients the simple technique of holding the webbed space between the thumb and forefinger with a gentle pressure to promote a sense of grounding and reassurance. Compassion-focused therapists might encourage us to deepen this practice of holding our own hand with some nurturing self-talk: “I am here with myself. Even though things are tough right now I love and accept myself as I am.”

These kind of practices are also perfect for those for whom touch is difficult. We may not always be able to trust the touch of others but we do have the power and the choice to offer kind and gentle touch to ourselves. 

You can read a summary of the ‘Touch Test’ survey results here, and a BBC article about the amazing properties of touch here.

Briony Martin

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