Monday, July 30, 2012
The Gift of Touch
A Love that Keeps on Growing
By Beverly Caruso
Special to ASSIST News Service
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (ANS) -- We seldom think about the importance of human touch. If we get enough of it, we tend to take it for granted. If we’ve never had enough, we don’t know what we’re lacking. Jesus included touch as a part of His ministry to folks.
Should we be surprised that research confirms that human touch is vital for healthy development? Premature babies who are touched and held are far more likely to thrive; those who don’t receive adequate human contact tend to be slower at developing and are more likely to have physical and emotional problems later in life.
Research also shows that just fifteen minutes of daily gentle massage helps premature infants gain weight faster, enabling them to leave the hospital sooner than premature babies not receiving such touching. The massaged babies are more relaxed, active and alert. Six months later they continue to be more advanced. In fact, all infants who are held regularly cry less than those who are held only a little. Their immune systems are enhanced and they handle stress more efficiently.
If you are in the older generation, you are in the least touched group in our culture. Part of the blame lies with our culture's emphasis on associating youthful skin with touchable skin, as well as touch being linked with youthful sexuality. Another factor is probably the greater number of people in this age group who live alone. If we restrict our touch to a spouse we may be in big trouble. But seniors have wonderful opportunities to teach others about the value of touch.
Pete and I were teaching a class of young adults in Southeast Asia on the subject of relationships. Our last session included the importance of touch. As we shared the information I’ve compiled above, students began to cry. By the time I mentioned my grandmother, almost all of the young men and women were weeping. Later our interpreter told us that in their culture, after about the age of five or six a child is no longer touched by his parents. The spirits of these young people, long yearning for affirming touches, had responded with powerful emotion when they realized how they had been deprived.
Most of us grew up in a society of hand shakers. This ancient ritual began as a way for potential enemies to demonstrate to one another that they held no weapon in their fighting hand. That was good for the days of knights in shining armor. Today, a handshake between friends has become for many people more of a “hands-off” gesture. For those who normally greet with a hug, a handshake can seem to say, “Don’t get too close to me.”
For some women a handshake from a man can be a bone-crushing experience. Men often don’t realize the pain they can cause to a smaller hand. On the other side, both men and women can send the wrong message with a handshake that feels like a slippery eel sliding through their extended hand. If we do use handshakes, we can make sure they are firm and friendly, but not painful.
No one can remember when the church we were pastoring switched from handshakes to hugs. I suspect it began when the Wilsons, mom and dad figures to the church folks, first took their place as greeters at the door each Sunday morning. To a first time visitor, Gloria would say warmly, “I’ll shake your hand this morning, but when you come back next week, I’ll hug you as a friend.” And she did. Frank and Gloria hugged everyone. And soon we found that a hand extended for a handshake was readily enclosed by the other arm being wrapped around our backs.
One woman told me that the members of her large extended family had never hugged one another. She began hugging each one when she greeted them. Over the course of about two years, the entire family changed from non-huggers to genuine huggers. Like our church body, they didn’t realize the process was taking place. Nor did they realize the spillover effect those hugs were having on their individual relationships.
According to Dolores Krieger, R.N., Ph.D., an expert in the field of touch therapy (a professor of nursing at New York University. Author of Therapeutic Touch: Inner Workbook.), when one person hugs or touches another, it actually invigorates the body by stimulating the level of hemoglobin which carries oxygen to tissues. When these tissues receive oxygen, they have a new energy that continues to rejuvenate the body.
Other researchers tell us that touching slows one’s heart rate, lowers blood pressure, increases levels of serotonin (a brain chemical linked to the sense of well-being) and relaxes other bodily functions. It decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol which can boost immunity. In the form of massage, touch hastens healing. Giving may be as good as receiving–mothers suffering from postpartum depression who massaged their infants related better to their babies. Even unrelated elderly volunteers who massaged infants reported less anxiety and depression in themselves.
It seems that for many, hugging is most difficult within the family unit. Like our students in Southeast Asia, once the children are no longer climbing on our laps, we stop reaching out to them with affection. Should a father hug his teenage daughter? Should a mother put her arm around her maturing son? With so many news reports about incest and child molestation, perhaps we’ve over-reacted to the many news reports about incest and child molestation. We’re withholding the very affection our children need to keep them emotionally healthy.
Of course, we should not be touching inappropriately. Yet it’s commonly known among social workers that girls who don’t receive healthy affection from their fathers are far more likely to become promiscuous than teenage girls who are freely hugged by their dads.
Jacky Coulter, R.M.T., (owner of Coulter Clinic in Toronto has been a massage therapist for 20 years and has written for a number of publications.) She has observed that “in schools and institutions, there is (correctly) a strong focus on trying to prohibit sexual and inappropriate touch. But when appropriate touch is not encouraged, as often happens, then all touch has the potential to become sexualized. Children don't learn to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate touch. They miss out on a whole range of valuable touch experiences - friendly, nurturing, reassuring, comforting and healing. We should be instilling a sense of what appropriate touch is.”
An affirming touch sends an important message: “You are important to me; I’ll protect you: I’m proud of you; I want to be close to you; I’m happy with you.” All those things can be said with one gentle touch.
What a wonderful gift God has given us in the gift of human touch. We can minister to one another by extending a friendly touch, offering a warm hug, or holding a hurting friend’s hand. (Excerpted from: Tools for Improving Relationships by Beverly Caruso)
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This story is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of the ASSIST News Service or ASSIST Ministries.