A Skin next to your skin

A Skin next to your skin

A Skin next to your skin

The expectant mother experiences an upsurge of excitation when the fetus first kicks inside her tummy. That’s the first contact between the unborn and its container. The grasp of a baby communicates trust. Hugs are the best way to transfer warmth. Someone wiping our tears seems like a subtle caress. A kiss is the most intimate form of affection between lovers. Nothing feels better than a loving hand, stroking our forehead, during the time of sickness. Life begins to make its existence felt through touch. It is the first sensation that develops from the womb of the mother (Montague, 1971) and continues hence forth after birth (just like the other sensations). Touch also alerts us about harm – the inappropriateness in the proximity of an abuser, the pain in the thrash of a parent, an utter disgust in picking up the trash and the coldness experienced while stroking a dying pet. We all have experienced the depth of touch which penetrates our body in versatile manners. What’s surprising is that this sensation is one of the most ignored one. We are very keen to observe, utilizing our visual, auditory and the olfactory senses. Tactile sensation is used inadvertently in many of such scenarios but it remains in our oblivion. Is this sensory process at all important?

Significance of Touch in Human life
Touch is the first medium through which a baby explores its surroundings. As mentioned previously, it’s the first mechanism for the fetus to communicate with the mother. Even the mother communicates with the fetus through the abdominal skin which is then reciprocated by the fetus. The fetus experiences touch by being suspended in amniotic fluid and receiving tactile stimulation through the mother’s abdominal wall, which is observed by increased activity (Dieter, Field, Hernandez-Reif, Emory, & Redzepi, 2003; Lagercrantz & Changeux, 2009).
‘Kangaroo care’, where the caregiver holds the infant skin-to-skin, especially utilizes this particular kind of caregiving touch to comfort the child in pain (Bellieni et al., 2007; Ferber, Feldman, & Makhoul, 2008).

A very symbolic way of understanding touch’s significance in our life is to imagine how it really happens. To touch something, we extend our limbs or bring the object or another living being close to us. In both the cases it’s about creating closeness. When transformed to the symbolic level the sensation of touch opens the world of proximity to human beings. The baby extends its hand to touch the caregiver and hug, the caregiver presses the lips on the baby’s cheek to kiss and express affection. The mother massages oil on the child’s body for his/her physical development, in the process of which a warm love gets transferred to the baby. When the caregiver hugs the child while breastfeeding, the child feels the softness of the breast along with the warmth emanating from the mother’s body. The child feels protected and secure. While separating from the mother, the child clings on to her leg just to express how vulnerable he/she feels to be left alone and the mother understands the fear and assures of her return. Intimacy develops between the child and the mother (caregiver) because of the presence of touch. The baby has no capacity to verbally express its feelings and neither does it understand the adults’ spoken words. So, no matter how many times one utters “I love you!” all the baby receives are certain meaningless sounds with intonations. But, just hug the baby and see the change in its facial expression. A broad smile and maybe a drooling giggle will be your gift.


The Entwined Relationship of Touch and Emotion
The phrase
action speaks louder than words
seems to be quite appropriate with respect to this. Touch is the action of emotion.

According to research conducted by Hertenstein, Holmes, McCullough and Keltner (2009) fear, disgust, love, anger, gratitude and sympathy are decoded at greater than chance levels, and better than happiness and sadness by touch from an unacquainted partner. They also discovered that specific touch behaviours are responsible to communicate specific emotion. For example, fear is usually communicated by holding the other, squeezing, and contacting without movement, whereas sympathy is communicated by holding the other, patting, and rubbing. A child who has had enough exposure to physical affection and warmth is expected to grow up to be an adult who is warmer and comfortable with intimacy.  Many cross-cultural studies provide such results. Field (1999a) discovered in his study that French parents were physically affectionate towards their children more often than American parents. This in turn made French children show less aggression than American children. It was also discovered that French adolescents were also physically and verbally less aggressive than the American adolescents (Field, 1999b). It is often stated that cultures that feature more physical affection towards their infants characteristically have less adult violence (Field, 2010). This will obviously help form more proximal intimate relationships. Montagu (1971) actually had stated touch and love to be indivisible. One of the five expressions of love is through physical touch (Goff, Goddard, Pointer, & Jackson, 2007). Field (2010) is of the opinion that the absence of touch may prevent the development of a romantic relationship. Joule and Gueguen (2003) observed that people are more likely to give someone something if they are touched at the same time that the request is made.

In Case You Think Touch Can Be Done Without!
Imagine a world where you couldn’t feel anything that you came into interaction with! We wouldn’t feel temperature, we won’t feel softness, the word ‘silky’ might not carry any meaning, ‘smoothness’ would be missing in our vocabulary, our hands and feet would lose a very basic use. In fact, we don’t have to actually imagine this, we are living in a time where we are forbidden to touch. We are living in a world without hugs, kisses, pecks, strokes and rubs. We meet our friends and family members almost every day, virtually. We might even wave at them from a distance of at least 6 feet (as per protocols). We get to hear their happiness, disgust, sadness and excitement through the phone conversations. But it still feels incomplete, it doesn’t give a closure to our interaction. We do this to save them and ourselves from the fatality of the infection causing the present pandemic. It is our love and concern that prevents us from expressing our affection, which seems so counterproductive and confusing. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant elevation of psychological distress in the general population, with reports of moderate to severe increases in anxiety, depression, and stress (Littman, Naftalovich, Huppert, & Kalanthroff, 2020). It cannot be denied that absence of touch and proximity is a major contributory factor in increase of such distress.
Several studies have authenticated the positive physiological and biochemical effects of touching including decreases in blood pressure and heart rate as well as decreased cortisol levels and increased oxytocin levels (Heinrichs, Baumgartner, Kirschbaum, & Ehlert, 2003; Henricson, Berglund, Maatta, Ekman, & Segesten, 2008).

Decreased cortisol (stress hormone) and increased oxytocin (love hormone) may be related and might explain the connection between the absence of touch and stress in present times. We often hear the phrase “healing touch” which can provide some insight to the fact that touch in a specific style and mode is believed to help a person recuperate. In fact, massage therapy was derived from the connection between touch and its effect upon pain and distress. It has been used primarily to treat pain, and is also increasingly used for problems like job stress, depression, autoimmune conditions like asthma, dermatitis and diabetes and immune conditions, most especially cancer (Field, Diego, & Hernandez-Reif, 2006)

An infant deprived of affectionate touches grows with the belief that he/she is not loved. They remain fearful due to lack of physical support. Lack of touch can make them wary of their environment which might seem threatening, empty, and cold. As they grow up to be teenagers and adults, they would often develop doubt about being loved and wanted by significant people in their lives. Without a physical proof of affection, they often begin to withdraw from intimacy. Words are used as refuge, emotional expressions are feared and avoided. In extreme cases, they might even build up resentment against intimate relationships. Sexual relationships might also be difficult to enjoy because of the inherent intimate nature of the interaction. Another harmful effect of touch deprivation would be upon self-esteem and socialization.

Research conducted by von Mohr, Kirsch, & Fotopoulou, (2017) showed that when affectionately touched by a friend or family member, an individual would feel socially included, which staves off negative feelings of rejection and strengthens social bonding. A comfortable touch, can make them feel welcome, at ease, and liked, leading to an increase in positive self-perception. Studies showed (Boudreault & Ntetu, 2006) that the elderly who received affective touch from their nurse practitioners report higher self-esteem.
Absence of tactile emotional exchanges between the adult and the infant could prove to be harmful for the caregivers, too. They might feel distance between themselves and the child which would be counterproductive for their roles as caregivers. The satisfaction desired from becoming parents and grandparents of an infant would remain incomplete which might even affect their emotional well-being. Many researchers discovered that depression decreased in depressed mothers, and their infants’ growth and development improved following a period of the mothers giving them massages (Goldstein-Ferber, 2004; O’Higgins, St James Roberts, & Glover, 2008). Other researchers found that the mother’s sensitivity and responsivity during interactions with their infants and the infant’s responses had also significantly improved both in non-depressed and depressed mothers and their infants (Field et al., 1996; Lee, 2006). Moreover, affectionate interaction with babies’ releases oxytocin because of it being a positive experience (Heinrichs, Baumgartner, Kirschbaum, & Ehlert, 2003; Henricson, Berglund, Maatta, Ekman, & Segesten, 2008). This in turn increases stress-busting capacity of the physiology of the adults. Neu et al. (2009) discovered that while holding their infants, the mother’s cortisol levels decreased, significantly. Thus, in the absence of such interaction, one opportunity of stress relief gets discarded.
Touch deprivation has been observed to be correlated with neurodevelopmental delays (Chugani et al., 2001; MacLean, 2003; Nelson, 2007) as well as cognitive development (MacLean, 2003) of infants. These authors mentioned primarily about touch deprivation of institutionalized children. The cognitive skills of these deprived children were found to be often below average in comparison to same-age children who were raised in families. Unfortunately, this deprivation and the associated developmental delays appeared to persist for many years after adoption (Beckett et al., 2006).
Some children might be aversive to touch, for example, it’s a common belief that children with autism respond negatively to touch. However, many studies indicate that children with autism benefit from massage by having fewer sleep problems (Escalona, Field, Singer-Strunk, Cullen, & Hartshorn, 2001; Field et al., 1997) and being less inattentive in the classroom. Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has been observed to experience touch defensiveness but, here again, it was seen that these children benefited from massage therapy by showing more ‘‘on task’’ behavior in the classroom (Field et al., 1998).

How to Satiate the Hunger When Starving?
Touch starvation is real and can very subtly lead to low mood, anxiety, stress, low relationship satisfaction, sleep problems and even tendencies to avoid secure attachments. In such situations it becomes imperative to try and satiate one’s hunger of touch and closeness. There are some ways in which this can be prevented. Massages are very good way of reducing such starvation, as has already been discussed previously. Petting an animal (one that allows you) releases serotonin, oxytocin and cortisol which is not only beneficial for touch satiation but also does wonders during stressful periods of life. If one is comfortable enough then greeting someone with a hug will do the job too. But I believe the best possible solution to such deep-seated hunger is to provide a sort of caregiving where children are touched positively and affectionately and allowed to do the same. This would reduce the taboo associated with skin contact and also help adults teach children to differentiate between good-touch and bad-touch. As the author Bobby Fischer uttered in his book titled ‘Chess Meets of the Century’ -

"Nothing eases suffering like human touch."

About the Author

Jhelum Podder
Psychoanalyst, Assistant Professor.

I am a qualified Psychoanalyst and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, Loreto College, Kolkata. My doctoral degree is in Psycho

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