When was the last time you hugged somebody? Who was it?

I spent a few days asking random people these two questions, and (apart from some odd looks) their gracious replies resulted in this article.

Research – and most people’s experience – say that touch is the first language we learn. Babies who receive touch in a consistent, predictable and respectful manner not only cry less and are more easily soothed, but also show more physical indicators of good health – better immunity, healthy weight gain, quicker to return eye contact, just to name a few. There have been studies in the past that link a syndrome called Failure to Thrive (FTT) in very young infants to a lack of physical touch from a caregiver. Despite being given adequate nutrition and having their physical needs attended, these babies (in an orphanage with low staff-baby ratio) did not show the typical development of a young child – they were more prone to infections, had poor appetites, tended to be more colicky and had poorer sleep than their counterparts in another orphanage, which had a 1:1 caregiver-baby ratio.

There are studies that reveal hugging a person for 15 seconds or longer actually releases serotonin in the brain; this chemical is responsible for reducing depression, among other things. Social scientists in the West studying relationships have found that in couples, touching peaks around the pre-commitment to commitment phase, which is between 4 months to the first year, and then tends to reduce over the next couple of years. There are also a lot of studies out there saying that couples with a higher rate of touching, regardless of any other relationship factor, are more ‘together’ – they report higher levels of satisfaction with themselves and the relationship and tend to have less unresolved conflict.

And yet, in this day and age, we are more likely to touch the screen of a phone or an iPad than the person sitting next to us. What with online friends and internet dating, the concept of sharing a physical space and being literally in contact with the other is absent more often than not. Most of us belonging to the ‘80s-90s generation guard our physical space more than our parents’ generation did. Paradoxically, ours is also the generation encouraging expression of feelings, love and affection. It’s funny how that doesn’t always come out in our actions.

A sad state for our first language to be in, no?

So, going back to the first question of ‘When was the last time you hugged somebody?’ in the beginning at this article, the answers ranged from a couple of hours to a few months. No one complained of too much touch, though; in fact, there were more people rueing the fact that they don’t hug/get hugged often enough. Most of the ‘whos’ were children/ significant others/friends/pets… in that order of frequency.

And that fits with the literature on touch in general – children get our touches the most: from a pat on the head to tickling games to general horseplay, all of these are perfectly normal ways of being around a child (up to age 10-12, at least). But you don’t see many adults who would bridge that space with an arm around the shoulders or on the back. Sadly, the people who are suffering from this most are the elderly – those above 65 years have fewer contemporaries who could relate to them in that way. And the younger generation seems to be unaware that they too need our touch to feel happy. In all the answers I got, there was just one person who’d hugged her dad the day before (and that was because he was leaving!)

Very often, we are most hungry for touch and we don’t even know it. If we missed out on it while growing up we might not even know what the fuss is all about. But the hunger is there, for that is the first way that humans relate to other humans. In families where appropriate touch hasn’t taken place – for whatever reasons – children grow into touch-phobic cacti and porcupines or are so needy for it that they’d be vulnerable to harmful forms of touch, just to feel touched. Sometimes there are those of us who try to fill that hunger for touch through food or gadgets (adult version of toys!) without even knowing what it is we miss. There are some who will cling to stuffed toys and to real animals, because getting close enough to touch another human being is just too complicated.

Touch – genuine, loving touch – communicates a level of acceptance and reassurance that can NOT be provided by words alone. It is sad that the people most in need of this, like the elderly, the lonely, the depressed are often the ones that get touched the least.

Even in this politically correct world we live in, there are still certain ways to touch that are respectful and affectionate. Touching on the shoulders, arms, back and hands is fine in a casual context, while areas like the face and hair are more acceptable in an intimate context. And when we touch this way, we’re signalling how okay we are and with what kinds of touch. That’s a sure-fire way to get some of that love back!

If you would like to explore this further, do get in touch with a professional counsellor at TalkItOver.

Talk It Over

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About Gayatri Swaminathan

Gayatri Swaminathan is a clinical psychologist with 7 years of practical experience in the field. She has worked as a trauma counsellor, a qualitative market researcher, lecturer and private practioner. She has an M. Phil in Clinical Psychology and M.A. in Applied Psychology from Delhi University and B.A. (Psychology, Sociology, English Literature) from Bangalore University. She is trained primarily in the cognitive-behavioural approach, but also incorporates other schools of therapy and techniques as and when needed. She works with individual adults, couples, children and adolescents and their families.