By John Tamiazzo, PhD
(April 12, 2019)
I met Elizabeth Kubler Ross in 1986. She was without a doubt one of the most amazing women I have ever had the pleasure to befriend. Elizabeth was such a popular teacher and workshop leader because she gave so much to her audience. Her heart was open, her mind was clear, and her passion for her work poured out of her, touching everyone she met. I spent dozens of hours with her, talking about her life and my life and sharing stories from our respective work in psychiatric hospitals.
Elizabeth was one of my graduate school instructors, and she told me a story that took place at one of her medical residencies. She was working in a children’s hospital that was divided into 4 wards. On one of the wards, the children were improving faster physically and psychologically than the children on the other three wards. Their improvements were so noticeable that it was brought to the attention of management. Physicians, social workers, psychologists, nurses, dieticians, and medical residents met many times to discuss and attempt to figure out why these children on this one ward were progressing more than the children on the other wards. They looked at differences in medication, staffing ratios, diet, and anything else that might bring light to the situation, but nothing did.
Elizabeth decided to visit the ward on all three nursing shifts and discovered that the cleaning lady on the midnight to 7am shift picked up, held, cuddled, and played with each child. She sang songs to them, lovingly touched their noses, their cheeks, stroked and kissed their forehead, all of which generated big smiles and laughter from the children. With all of their combined years of education and expertise in pediatrics, these doctors, nurses, social workers, and other professionals could not do what the cleaning lady did. Her secret was the healing power of touch and unconditional love.
As one of the primary senses, touch has not received the acclaim and research funding as the senses of hearing and vision. The study of touch or what is referred to as affective touch is considered unchartered territory. David Ginty, a neurophysiologist at Harvard University who is working to delineate the nerve circuits that control all aspects of touch states, “This is an incredibly exciting time. Over the next 5-10 years, we’re really going to crack open the circuits that underlie the responses to different types of touch under different conditions.” Genty believes that in the coming years we will be able to identify and develop new treatment solutions based on touch for conditions like spinal cord damage, chronic nerve pain, addictive disorders, and even autism.
The research in the area of touch is astounding and I hope that they find what they are looking for but separate from the research, we know from personal experience how wonderful touch feels. Most of us have had the opportunity to get an amazing massage or a deeply relaxing facial. But even more fundamental and significant are the simple acts of holding hands with a loved one; the feel of gentle hands on your shoulder; a back rub; giving and receiving a hug; the sensual feel of your body touching your partners body while dancing; the wondrous sensations of getting a foot massage; walking barefoot on the sand or soft grass in a park, or simply stepping into the cool and refreshing water in a creek or ocean are all experiences that result in the immediate release of the feel good hormone oxytocin.
Author Margaret Atwood wrote in Der blinde Mörder , “Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.”
John Tamiazzo is the author of self-help books, Love & Be Loved: 8 Steps to Creating Intimacy & Finding the Love You Want; Returning to the Land of Oz: Finding Hope Love, and Courage on Your Yellow Brick Road. Visit his website, johntamiazzo.com to learn more about his Counseling and Consulting Services.