Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Studies in orphanages and hospitals stress that infants deprived of skin contact lose weight, become ill and even die. To thrive newborns need touch as much as food. As children we instinctively seek out touch when we need it, and ask to be hugged or cuddled by our parents. As we grow older, we may not experience as much physical touch in our lives, and might not feel as comfortable asking for it.

Nothing can make us feel loved more than being touched. A pat on the arm, a back rub, a hug, or someone stroking our hair all send the message, “I care about you.” “You are loved.” When we don’t get this kind of physical contact, it can significantly contribute to feelings of loneliness and separation.

When I was going through cancer treatment, I had reiki sessions once a week to help me deal with the side effects. The sessions were seriously discounted and offered through a local program just for cancer patients. This “laying on of hands,” from an ancient Asian healing practice made a major impact on my nausea, bone aches and other chemotherapy side effects. Looking back on it now, I also recognize how emotionally healing it was during that difficult time to receive loving touch for an hour each week.

Programs like this one offer a valuable service to their clients during one of the most difficult times of their lives. I serve on the board of a similar organization that helps patients heal and reconnect with their bodies after treatment is complete through massage therapy. Cancer patients can often feel as if their bodies have betrayed them, and treatment takes a toll on even the most otherwise healthy person.

Massage can help patients deal with lingering pain or sensitivity in certain body parts. It also helps move toxic chemicals out of the system, and provides a sense of rejuvenation to the to the body. But perhaps the most significant part of the process is the opportunity to talk with a provider about what you’re going through as a patient or survivor, and to experience the connection that comes from allowing yourself to receive therapeutic touch.

When we are “sick,” people can be afraid they are going to hurt us in some way if they hug too hard or touch the wrong spot. If we have ports, IVs or other tubes and wires coming from our bodies, especially in the hospital, people can be even less willing to reach out physically. Let people know it’s ok and where there might be sensitive areas to avoid. Go a step further and let your loved ones know when you need to hold someone’s hand, get an extra-long hug or a foot rub. Whatever makes you feel connected and loved – be willing to ask for it.

I have used energy work such as reiki, healing touch and acupuncture to deal with many of the side effects of treatment and of menopause following my hysterectomy. All have had a profound impact on my physical issues, but perhaps just as strongly, if not more so, on my emotional well-being. The act of receiving is powerful, and all of these healing modalities ask only that you relax and allow yourself to receive the healing energy and touch being provided. There is something very profound about being able to receive in this way without any expectation of reciprocation. There are few times in our lives when we can do that, and many of us are not very good at receiving.

I had a conversation recently about physical affection. It was refreshing in the context of a romantic relationship to have someone tell me the type of affection he appreciates. We often expect people we are intimate with to be able to figure it out, or to read our minds about what makes us feel loved and connected. Even more ludicrously is when we get upset with them if they don’t give us what we want and need. Being able to recognize your own needs and communicate them to others is essential.

Saying to someone – whether they are a romantic partner, a friend or family member – “Can you hold my hand?” can feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you practice it, the more natural it seems. “I like it when you rub my lower back,” is a great phrase to insure you get more of what nurtures you. “Cuddling with you as we fall asleep is one of my favorite parts of the day,” not only communicates what you like, but acknowledges the other person for what they give to you.

Single people may not get as much affectionate touch as they need to feel healthy, connected and loved. As society becomes less dependent upon each other for our physical survival, the emotional connections we have had with others historically have also fallen away. Just because we no longer need the community to hunt and kill our food, or to live collectively to share the tasks of daily survival, doesn’t mean we are any less dependent upon each other for physical affection.

Living alone and being independent is becoming more and more the norm in modern society, and that can mean that many of us are starved for human touch and affection. My friend was brave enough to share how difficult is was for him to have grown up without a great deal of affection in his home, and now as a single adult, how isolating it could be to come home from a difficult day at work and not have someone to share that with or give him a hug and let him know it was going to be ok.

His confession brought tears to my eyes because I often felt the same way going through cancer treatment. Not having someone there to help you make the difficult decisions that need to be made about your health and treatment can leave you feeling overwhelmed, but not having someone there to give you a hug and tell you everything’s going to be ok is devastating.