I am a person with a bubble. I don’t come from a touchy-feely family, and I’d generally like strangers on any given elevator to give me a wide berth. My favorite phrase in high school Spanish class was, “No me toques.”
But I truly believe that people, my bubble-loving self included, desperately need to put away our MC Hammer vibes, and decide that people can, in fact, touch this.
A lot of undeniable atrocities, and some just plain bad habits, have brought our society to the point where the act of physically touching another human being has become something of a wonder. People are now keeping Touch Journals and frequenting professional cuddling shops due to sheer lack of literal human contact. But, because of rampant and aggressive physical and sexual harassment, almost any unsolicited contact with a stranger seems to be construed as a threat—sometimes, rightly so. But with so little body contact in our ever-segregating culture, we’re also missing out on some of the most powerful forces of nature this life can provide.
Years ago, scientist Harry Harlow studied infant monkeys that had been separated from their mothers. He found that, though in desperate need of physical nourishment, the babies clung to warm, cloth-covered surrogates rather than embrace cold wire ones that actually provided food. They chose physical touchover sustenance and survival.
From birth, we are hardwired for connection and contact, and that need never decreases as we age. We don’t grow out of needing to feel security and love. If anything, the need increases as each of us is met with life’s inevitable challenges and changes. And physical contact can help fulfill that need in incomparable ways.
We know that the skin is a powerful sensory receptor. When touched in a positive way, our bodies respond almost instantly with lower heart rates and blood pressure, with less cortisol and more serotonin. The immune system is ramped up and we can sleep deeper. It gives us more power to control stress. And while all that is going on inside us, we can see outwardly that relationships are being strengthened, trust is being built, and a sense of togetherness is being formed. We have the opportunity, and the need, to truly connect and unite against the common enemy of solitude.
But how do we get there, when we have all been shaped by negative experience or even trauma?I suggest baby steps. Start with putting down your phone and looking another person in the eye. Work toward more high fives and handshakes. From there, maybe a gentle touch on the arm to let someone know you see they’re having a hard day. For those you know better, perhaps an invitation to share a hug.
These types of uplifting, bonding behaviors have the power to change our society, stabilize what has become a shaky and frightening place, and build a foundation for greater understanding and connection that we each intrinsically crave. No doubt it will take courage and work, but when the alternative is heading to a darker, more detached place than we are now, the effort will be unquestionably worth it.
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