Insights: Touch

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Leo Buscaglia once wrote: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

A friend of mine was at a nursing home and sent me an amazing picture of two elderly people in wheelchairs side by side, hugging each other. It was such a moving photo.

This photo reminded me of how we never lose the need for touch, for connection. It is a basic human need, yet one that we often take for granted or do not take the time to ensure we give and get.

Often I see people who hug, yet I also notice that they are not present, not engaged in the experience.

Another issue I see is that with social media we are inundated with distractions that seem to replace the real need for connection. This lack of true connection has a large impact on our happiness. Social media gives us a false sense of attachment and connection which leaves people feeling lonely, sad, insecure and isolated.

Studies make it clear that touch has so many benefits in our lives. What is interesting is that touch does not have to be a hug, but a touch on a shoulder.  I think even eye contact is a form of touch that has a lot of impact on people.  Touch and eye contact both release some wonderful chemicals in our body such as oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine.

Oxytocin calms our nervous system and leaves us feeling more content.  Serotonin increases the sense of pleasure in life. Dopamine on the other hand makes us feel happier, more satisfied with life in general. Who does not want these feelings?

We can see the importance of touch with young babies who were deprived and how they have a failure to thrive. Once these children got touch there was often an improvement in their body weight, they were more alert and cried less.

I believe that even as adults we do not thrive without touch. It does not end in childhood, it is something we need throughout our lives.

Stress has one of the most negative influences on the body. We all experience stress. It is part of living in this world. However, after experiencing stress, touch decreases its impact on our body and increases our immune system. Hugging also helps regulate the nervous system and calms it down.

Hugs actually help us feel younger and helps release hormones that keep our body strong.

I had to have an MRI a few months ago and was extremely anxious about going in. I had a friend there with me who rubbed my feet. My anxiety decreased to the point I was able to get through the procedure. Studies have also shown that touch relieves pain.

Hugs can help decrease depression and anxiety, decrease food cravings, strengthen relationships and improve how we feel about ourselves.

So how do we give the best hugs?

Start with making eye contact with the person. Come in slowly towards the other person giving positive body language such as smiling, and opening your arms. Take a breath to get more present with your experience. Lean into the hug, allowing yourself to connect with the other person. Then when appropriate release gradually. It is that simple.

I have a friend who is going through stage 4 cancer. Each week I go and massage her feet. I see her come alive, yet at the same time relax. I can tell it takes her away from her pain in that moment just because of the touch.

As Leo Buscaglia said, “touch can turn a life around.”

I hope that if I am in a nursing home, that I too would still have the wonderful experience of sharing touch through a hug, a touch on the arm or someone holding my hand.

I know that will mean the world to me.

Contact Dr. Shelly Zavala at or [email protected].



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