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The healing potential of touch

Did you know that if a teacher touches a student on the back or arm, that student is more likely to participate in class? Or that the more often athletes high-five or hug their teammates, the better their game. Did you know a touch can make patients like their doctors more?

Maybe you were aware of that but it came as something of a surprise to me. The specific illustrations above were offered as part of a radio program on a recent weekend morning — and then further discussed in an accompanying blog (www.npr.org). I've been pondering the power inherent in the simple act of touching another person — almost obsessively — ever since.

Let's try an experiment. This week, perhaps we can all do two things. First, let's be more observant of those moments when one person is touching another, like when a small child reaches up to hold a parent's hand or a husband puts his arm around his wife as they sit talking with friends. Just watching it happen will probably be good for our collective spirits — these are challenging times and we need to draw comfort in all possible ways.

The second stage of this experiment might prove even more comforting. After you've done a bit of tender-moment observation, dive in and give it a try.

Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, would describe it as activating our skin's "pressure receptors." Once engaged through the simple act of touching someone's arm, hand or back, the receptors immediately send signals to "nerve bundles deep in the brain" which emit messages to the rest of the body that result in a slower heart rate and lower blood pressure.

As a researcher at DePauw University describes it, "touch buffers the physiological consequences" of a stressful moment.

I vividly recall preparing to speak before a large group at a national conference a few years ago. As I sat waiting to be introduced, the projector made a sizzling sound and the screen I had depended on to display my presentation went totally blank. I had this stomach-sinking reaction as I envisioned trying to be informative, let alone entertaining, for one solid hour without my colorful slides. At that moment, an elderly woman sitting near me reached over and squeezed my arm — she did not say a word. There was no "Poor dear, such a problem this presents for you." She just touched me. And I will be forever grateful to her, whoever she is, for that brief, empowering, physical exchange.

Some of you may be thinking — "But I wouldn't necessarily want just anyone randomly touching me." Okay — I can understand that. Maybe you just perform the observation part of my proposed experiment. Be especially observant about mother and child moments. (I believe moms know the most about the healing power of touch.)

And, finally, if you're really not inclined to reach out and touch more frequently — maybe next time you greet someone, you could just shake hands with a little more emphasis.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.