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Healing Touch and Melting Stress

Winter 2014

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Healing Touch and Melting Stress

Illustration by Carol-Anne Pedneault

From the hug that comforts a crying child to the hand that steadies the shoulder of an anxious friend, touch can be a powerful tonic. As a long-term survivor of 24 years and counting, I am constantly exploring ways to enhance my physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. And what I've found is that touch and physical intimacy can be powerful remedies.

What many of us feel, or know, intuitively about the benefits of touch is also backed up by science. Research shows us that these benefits begin as soon as we leave the delivery room. One of the most remarkable studies looked at the effects of physical touch on premature infants. A group of premature babies who were gently touched and massaged three times a day were compared to a group of preemies of similar size who shared similar life conditions but were not touched and massaged every day. The researchers found that the infants from the first group were more alert, more active and more responsive. They slept more deeply. And they gained weight up to 47 percent more rapidly. The babies who were touched regularly also left the hospital six days sooner. These findings were nothing short of astonishing.

We know that physical touch is more than skin deep. As many as 5 million touch receptors in our skin (more than 3,000 in a single fingertip) send messages along our spinal cord to the brain. A simple touch can reduce our heart rate and lower our blood pressure. Caring, nurturing touch can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and some studies suggest it may enhance a person's immune function. It can also stimulate the brain to produce endorphins, our body's natural pain and stress suppressor -- which is why a mother's hug of a child who has skinned her knee can literally "make it all better."

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But we in North America are a relatively non-tactile society. Compared to people in many parts of the world, we tend to be a little touchy, so to speak, about being touched. One need only walk down the streets of Cairo, Buenos Aires, Bangkok or Rome to witness more open displays of affection and realize that this is the case.

Of course, physical intimacy comes in different shapes and sizes: There's the kind you build with loved ones -- romantic and platonic, the kind you find in various therapeutic-style settings and the more casual sexual kind. While the nature of each of these differs dramatically, all can offer varying degrees of pleasure and balm. Of course, touch can also be unwelcome and far from comforting; it can take the ugly shape of all-too-common physical or sexual violence, too. For many of us, the ideal may be the kind of physical intimacy -- sexual and otherwise -- found in a loving long-term relationship. But in the absence of that -- or to complement it -- there are many possibilities, some of which are surprisingly creative.

In the late '80s and early '90s my friends and lovers were sick and wasting, eventually dying in hospital beds and at home. I call this period the Dark Ages. I lost my lover of 12 years and then, over three years, four close friends. This was fairly common, especially in the gay community. The irony is that when my lover and my friends died was precisely when I needed them the most for support -- someone to hold me in their arms, where I could let go and grieve.

One thing I've noticed since being single is that anonymous sex is easy to find, at least in a big city, but safe, nurturing touch is much more elusive. It can be hard to meet people, let alone hit it off with them. Then there's the fact that many people shy away from intimacy, as it can bring up repressed memories, emotions and trust issues, especially if they have experienced sexual abuse or been in violent relationships. But no matter our personal experiences, touch is something most of us crave, especially when we're deprived of it.

We may know subconsciously that touch can enhance our well-being and quality of life, but how do we show affection and physical intimacy in a society in which individuals seem to be more and more socially isolated? I'm hardly the first to notice that people seem to stare at their phones and computers more often than at each other. Our affluence and technological advances seem to have led to more social isolation. Many of us sit in our homes watching our flat-screen TVs or spend hours surfing the Net. This isolation can lead to sadness, and, unfortunately, that sadness can become pathologized -- often seen as depression that needs to be medicated. What is really needed is more intimacy with others.

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This article was provided by Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. It is a part of the publication The Positive Side. Visit CATIE's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
 
See Also
Guide to Conquering the Fear, Shame and Anxiety of HIV
Trauma: Frozen Moments, Frozen Lives
More on Coping With Stress and Anxiety
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