Touch — And Reconnecting With Ourselves

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We can be so focused on the perceived shortcomings of our bodies — too thin, too fat, too big, too small — that we fail to appreciate what an extraordinary means we have at our disposal to experience the world around us — our body’s sense of Touch.

It’s a strange irony, but in our society we are both too obsessed with our bodies and simultaneously not aware enough of them. We think too much about our bodies (‘Do I look fat in this?’, ‘Should I have a face-lift?’, ‘A nose-job?’, ‘Should I go to the gym more often to build up my muscles?’), but we don’t spend enough time feeling with our bodies — noticing and appreciating how our bodies feel, moment to moment, as we encounter the world and interact with it and the people around us. We don’t spend enough time truly inhabiting our bodies; instead, we spend a lot of time in our heads or our minds, thinking about things, people, anxieties or events outside ourselves.

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to devote some time and space to reflecting on our five senses and how we can learn to tune more deeply into the world around us, to feel more in touch with life and, internally, more in touch with our experience of the world through our sensory input. Today, appropriately enough, I’m going to start with Touch.

The skin is by far the largest of our organs; it protects us from infection and toxins, keeps our inner workings warm and dry, and provides us with an exquisitely sensitive way of experiencing the world around us. It begins in the womb, where we are fully enveloped in our mother’s amniotic fluid, the perfect protective environment for us as developing beings. Our skin is at one with its surroundings and so are we; there is no ‘other’. Birth is a traumatic emergence into a cold, strange world, where the air is so much thinner and less supportive than the warm liquid we are accustomed to. We are touched by other objects; where once we were touched all over and all at once by the amniotic fluid, now we are touched on individual parts of ourselves — a hand here, a cheek there, and so on.

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As we grow, touch is our way of finding out about the world around us, a world that only gradually comes into focus as our eyesight and ability to interpret what we see improves. It’s only later that we become more reticent about touch; how often were you told as a child ‘Don’t touch that!’ either because it was potentially dangerous (such as a hot iron) or fragile (grandmother’s best china) or whatever? Touch becomes conditional: I’ll touch it if it’s safe, not going to hurt me, doesn’t belong to someone else, won’t break. And so we begin to cut ourselves off from touch.

Our society has taken this one stage further: it’s almost impossible now to feel comfortable about touching another person’s child to soothe them if they’re upset, for fear of being accused of suspicious motives. If you were in a crowded shopping centre and saw a child on their own, seemingly lost and tearful, how easy would it be for you to go over and touch them gently on the shoulder to let them know they are not alone?

It has been argued that many individuals in our society are effectively ‘touch-deprived’ and that this is the root cause of their mental or emotional distress — the absence of physical touch being a contributing factor to a sense of emotional loneliness and isolation. Research has shown that touch, or the lack of it, can seriously affect the emotional development of the individual; in his article ‘Touch and Human Sexuality‘, Robert Hatfield describes some of this fascinating research, which suggests that people who are deprived of affectionate touch as children are more prone to problems with close personal relationships as adults. The key phrase here is ‘affectionate touch’; for children who have experienced consistently neglectful, punitive or abusive touch from others, the sensation of being touched by another person may well feel threatening and stressful rather than soothing.

Adults also need to be touched — not necessarily in a sexual way. I used to savour the delicious warmth of a massage therapist’s hands on my aching shoulders after a hard day at work. I could really feel my muscles uncoiling, as if from tightly wound springs, and reconnecting with the rest of my body to make me feel more than just a dense mass of shoulder pain. Touch like this helps to reduce levels of the ‘stress hormone’, cortisol, and encourages general feelings of wellbeing.

I see it as no coincidence that we talk about being in or out of touch with things, whether that’s with other people or ourselves or the outside world. We are contained within our bodies, and our sense of touch is our quintessential means of reaching out from within our bodies and connecting with ‘outside’. There’s a handout that I use with some of my clients, particularly those who feel out of touch with themselves and who they are in relation to the world. It has 6 columns, one of which is headed ‘TOUCH’. I ask my clients to think about what things they like the ‘feel’ of and why. I tried it out on my stepson a moment ago and this is what he said: ‘I like the feel of my cat’s coat; it’s silky on my fingers but there are tickly bits as well. It’s thick and smooth and she tickles me with it when I’m asleep’. For me, I love the cool sensation of a crisp cotton pillow-slip on my cheek, the womb-like sensation of slipping into a deep hot bath, and the soft furriness of the leaves of the silver-grey plant we called ‘Lamb’s Lugs’.

Focusing on touch takes me out of my head and into my body and its contact with the outside world; it provides a pause for reflection and that, for me, is a welcome respite from the frantic pace of daily life.

I wonder who or what will you touch today?

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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