Connecting in Times of Crisis: Touch

Dr. Martha G. Welch shares findings from the Nurture Science Program research that demonstrate the importance of touch in calming one another.

There’s no substitute for being held while you cry. You’re blanketed in someone’s warm, loving embrace; they invite you to bury your head in their shoulder. Your heart feels another heartbeat, your breath syncs to the rhythm of the other person’s breathing, and you feel relief.

Touch is a basic need. Months into the COVID crisis, we’re hearing, “I miss hugging my friends,” and seeing images of children hugging their grandparents through elaborate homemade ziplock-bag-shower-curtain barrier systems. And yet, the strain of being at home full-time with family can actually make us less likely to seek the healing touch that’s available to us.

All people, of all ages, need to be touched in order to thrive.

At the Nurture Science Program, we have found that emotional connection has profound impacts on our health and mood. In this blog series, we are sharing elements of the Family Nurture Care approach which harnesses seven activities to foster an emotional connection. Today we focus on touch.

Touch is an important component for creating emotional connection.

As important as touch is, it is equally important that it be safe. A terrible side effect of COVID is that safety might mean avoiding touching others altogether.

Though touch with loved ones is irreplaceable, we can use what we know about touch and emotional connection to give our bodies a much-needed boost even when we are not together. This can help offset the stress of separation. So how do we get the most benefit?

The majority of our pressure receptors are in the torso: these are the pressure receptors that make us feel held.

This means that when you are on the phone or FaceTime with a loved one, you can each hug yourselves to stimulate these receptors. While doing this, you can use your other senses – talk, eye contact, listening – to amplify the emotional connection. Say things like, “I can’t wait to see you and hug you.”

And for those of us who live with family or friends, we can use this time to transform touch, even the most mundane, passing touch, into enduring emotional connection. We can cuddle, we can hug, we can give back rubs. If we brush up against our partner while we both busily see to our chores, we can pause for an extra moment and share something from the heart. We can all benefit from reminding our bodies what loving touch really feels like.

Today’s tip: Connect with touch.

  • A calming touch is slow and static, with gentle but firm pressure. You get this kind of touch in a long, full hug. Hug each other frequently.
  • Lay a firm hand on your abdomen and discover what amount of pressure feels good to you. Learn to communicate that to a partner. Find out what level of pressure touch they like.
  • No matter what activity you’re doing, find purposeful and communicative ways to connect through touch: the squeeze of a hand, or a hand on a knee.
  • Cuddle while reading bedtime stories. This is for adults too: bedtime stories for adults offset the stress of the daily news.
  • Always make sure your touch is welcome and reciprocal. If you need your partner to hug you more, ask for it.
  • Try adding emotional expression into the mix. While touching, tell a story, a significant memory, a tidbit of family history, or sing a song that you love.
  • Find loving incidental ways to touch: even the mundane can be meaningful, when you are brushing a crumb off of someone’s face or tucking in a t-shirt tag.

Touch is a cornerstone of emotional connection. It’s a cycle: loving touch can help us get emotionally connected, and emotional connection can help us want to be touched. Wanting to be touched, and having that need met, will help calm our bodies and minds. And that calm itself improves the quality of our relationships.

Let’s take care of each other,

Martha G. Welch, MD, DFAPA
Director, Columbia Nurture Science Program


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