The Healing Power of Touch

February 1, 2012

Kelli holding JacksonTactile sensation including massage, hugs and pats on the back have proven to accelerate recovery from illness, calm us when we are afraid and even help premature babies gain weight.This is not surprising given that our skin is our body’s largest organ. When our skin’s sensory receptors are stimulated, the hormone oxytocin, the “love hormone,” is released. At the same time, the stress hormone cortisol is reduced.

Recently while traveling home from a short business trip, I had the opportunity to truly see the power of a simple touch. Our plane had been sitting on the tarmac for quite some time. The flight had already been delayed several times because of weather and the passengers (myself included) were growing restless. Then there was commotion at the front of the plane as three elderly passengers hurriedly boarded and followed the flight attendant down the aisle desperately searching for a vacant seat and an overhead compartment with space for their bags.

The windowseat on my row was empty so I stood to allow one of the women by. It was then that I noticed the tears welling in her eyes. As soon as she sat down she began to frantically make a series of phone calls assuring those on the other end of the line that she was on her way. As the plane ascended, she began to quietly sob behind her wrinkled hands. My heart broke for her as I sat helpless, watching her body shake with anguish.

Clearly she was very distressed.  But, she was a complete stranger.  What could I say or do to offer comfort?  Silently I said a prayer and then took a risk.  I reached out (over the poor man in the middle seat) and placed my hand on the woman’s shoulder.  It was awkward, but exhilarating.  I felt an immediate connection to this person I had never met.  She slowly turned her head to look at me and with tears streaming down her face, she whispered “thank you.”  I kept my hand there and periodically patted her arm.  The man in the middle seat (who spoke limited English) offered to trade seats with me.  I slid over – never removing my hand from my new friend.

By the end of our short flight, I learned that her brother had a stroke the day before. He lived in Austin and she had not seen him in years. Due to the weather delays, she and her other siblings had missed two earlier connections. Her brother was in poor condition and she was stricken with grief to think she may not get to tell him goodbye. We held hands as she told me about her brother and some of her favorite memories of him growing up. As we departed, she repeatedly thanked me for showing her compassion and we both agreed that there is healing power in touch–even from a stranger.

Studies have found that touch can not only lower blood pressure, help reduce the effects of asthma, and ease migraines, but also touch significantly increases bonding with those around us. Parents of preemies know the power of touch – as well as the anguish in not being able to hold or touch their baby. I well remember how my body ached to hold my son, Jackson who was born at 24 weeks, but his situation was much too critical. Weighing just a pound and a half and relying on a ventilator for life, he could not be moved. Because of his underdeveloped nervous system and paper-thin skin, I was encouraged to only lightly stroke the back of his hand with my index finger. I will never forget the day (six weeks after his birth) that I was finally able to hold him skin to skin. I sat in an old rocking chair eagerly watching as a team of nurses worked to remove him from his bed, position his monitors and adjust his breathing tube. They placed him on my chest and it was at that moment that I truly felt like a mom. I felt a connection that had been desperately missing. A sense of calm and hopeful anticipation overcame me as I finally allowed myself to believe that this precious child would live and some day come home from the NICU.

With the proliferation of Facebook, text messaging and Skype, it seems like a great part of our daily human interaction is now virtual. For our own health and that of our children, let’s not forget the healing power of touch and the beauty of a long embrace.