Touch means many things to different people. For some people the need for the physical senses to be ignited is paramount. It is why so many single people have pets they can stroke and feel. Hugging and other forms of nonsexual touching cause your brain to release oxytocin, which is known as the “bonding hormone.” This stimulates the release of other feel-good hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin, while at the same time reducing stress hormones, such as cortisol. For others, it can be hell on earth. I have a friend who was once given a voucher for a massage. She gave it away instantly, saying that she could not think of anything scarier than an unknown person touching her. I was astounded and grabbed it out of her hands quicker than a ten-story block of flats can replace a Sliema townhouse.
Of all the senses, touch is the first to develop. The cuddles and strokes we receive in infancy help us to build a healthy image of ourselves, nurturing the feeling that we are loved and accepted. Experiments with infant primates and psychologists have confirmed that lack of touch in infancy can be physically and emotionally stunting. Think about it. In prison, already a place of sensory deprivation, the single most feared punishment is solitary confinement. Why do you think that is?
Where we are born, and the families we are born in to will play a very important role in our relationship with touch as we turn into adults. An interesting piece of research took place in cafes around the world and recorded the number of times two people sharing coffee touched each other per hour, evidencing the wide disparity in regards to how much we engage in touch. In London they recorded 0 touches per hour, in Florida 2 per hour, Paris 110 per hour and San Juan, more than 180 per hour. I know where I would rather have a coffee, I don’t know about you! Overall, Northern Europe was seen as much less “touchy and cuddly” than Southern Europe. Luckily, I grew up in a very tactile household and then went into the acting profession straight from school. As anyone who has dipped a toe into that world will tell you, it is non-stop touching, cuddling and hugging. In fact, one of our first exercises of the day at drama school was to stand in a circle and massage the neck, shoulders and head of the person in front of you, while you received the same from the person behind. An incredible way to start a day, I can assure you.
My straight married male friends all still kiss me and give me a big hug when we meet. But we are a rare breed in England. Men there usually only touch during sport or to fight. I remember being so pleased when I moved to the Mediterranean to see schoolboys holding hands walking down the street. And the first time one of the men in the village square rubbed my belly while he was talking to me is a memory I will always treasure. Over a decade later, seeing old men meet in the square to chat about football and politics, (I am assuming that is what straight men talk about? Please write in to correct me if I am wrong, I have no idea, honestly!), greeting each other with a pat or a rub on the belly still fills my heart with joy.
As a reflexologist, I know only too well the benefits of touch. Many clients have often said to me that just me touching their feet at the beginning of the session makes them feel instantly relaxed. Sadly over the years, I feel that in the West particularly, we have strayed far from our natural instincts, and reserved the use of touch to either heal cries of pain and sorrow, or for sexual contact. I see more and more people afraid to touch merely as a means of expressing affection or to relax.
Twenty-twenty has been a year like no other in our living history. Our societies became more disconnected, our loneliness became more prevalent and mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression increased. As a social species, the need to increase our physical contact with others to truly thrive during these challenging times has obviously been put on hold as touch has become synonymous with fear. The honey-voiced baritone Jim Morrison once implored, “Touch me, baby, can’t you see that I am not afraid”. If only the rest of the world felt like old Jim. Maybe we would be living in a calmer and less anxious place. Writing and acting is a part of me I love, and they bring me great pleasure. But my work as a reflexologist means I get to give people reassurance, comfort and a renewed sense of vitality, something that transcends all I do. Touch tells us we are not alone. In this increasingly difficult time, what greater feeling could we have?