Redemption through Touch

“A hug makes you feel good all day.” Kathleen Keating

Last Sunday night—Mother’s Day—felt incredibly sweet for me. My own kids, Michael and Scout, sent lovely messages from Oregon, while I got to spend time in Indiana with my mom, Char, my three brothers, two nephews, my lovely 13 year old friend, Avi, and my sweetie, Ed. Being together was a rare delight on its own, but what made it so sweet was the hugging.

We didn’t hug, cuddle or show physical affection when we were growing up. Parental touch came in the form of correction or discipline. Touch between my brothers and I occurred mostly during athletic activities such as football or wrestling—in other words, it was rough and tumble touch, not affectionate. (Poking each other in church or a cramped car was the other common form of touch but that never resulted in anything good!)

And yet, even with our stunted experience of touch we’ve all somehow learned to do it differently than what we learned growing up. Ed and I shared e-hugs with my three brothers and their wives and big bear hugs with my nephews. Our young friend Avi was a delight, freely offering hugs, cuddling up and holding hands. When everyone left at the end of the evening, we shared big hugs all around again. My heart soared at what I felt and witnessed: genuine affection conveyed through hugs. What a shift—and how fortunate for all of us.

After all these years, why should this matter so much? Two reasons come to mind: as I write my memoir I am recalling more good memories which not only provides balance, it enables me to see that through the tough times, we were a family that remained connected though for a time, we definitely scattered for survival. Alcoholism will do that to a family—yet not all families retain core connection. And second, being touch-avoidant never felt quite right to me. I always felt like something was missing in my relatively touchless world. Turns out, I was right.

There are so many reasons for us to share non-sexual touch with others. Our skin is our body’s largest organ and touch releases oxytocin by stimulating the sensory receptors in our skin. Oxytocin is a hormone that makes us feel good—happy, accepted, connected—and its activation delivers a host of well-known benefits:

  • Levels of the stress hormone cortisol decline
  • Blood pressure and heart rate drops
  • Immune function increases
  • Asthma symptoms abate
  • Migraine headache symptoms ease
  • Sleep is more restful
  • Chronic pain sufferers report a decline in pain
  • Problem-solving abilities improve
  • The restlessness associated with dementia is alleviated

I know that when I share touch with someone, be it a hug, holding hands, stroking a hand or arm, giving or receiving a shoulder massage, it feels good to the core of my being and I generally feel softer, and more grounded inside—and more connected to the other person. That there are even greater health benefits involved is pure bonus!

I am deeply grateful that I’ve normalized touch and that my family has learned to relax into warm hugging with one another. Undoubtedly, with what we know about the benefits of touch, we are all far better off. Cuddle pile, anyone?