Our sense of touch

Have you ever hugged a tree? For all the clichés around tree-huggers, it’s actually a wonderful thing to do. And if you can’t quite see yourself going up to a tree and giving it a hug, even just running your hand along its bark can be a great way to feel more connected to nature.

Touch is one of our most important senses – infants who are deprived of touch fail to develop normally. Even taking someone’s hand and holding it briefly can instantly help to calm and soothe them. If you’re with someone who is crying or very distressed, the natural instinct is to give them a hug or at least put your hand around their shoulder. Touch can also help us feel more connected to our environment – running our hands over smooth pebbles in the creek, walking barefoot across sand on a beach, noticing a warm gentle breeze against our skin, touching beautiful fabric such as silk.

As human beings, we need touch – we thrive when we are touched in loving and caring ways. Unfortunately, our need to be touched is also easily abused. In order to protect the vulnerable from sexual abuse, we have laws in Australia regulating the use of touch in the workplace. What touch means depends on the relationship between two people. A brief hand on the shoulder can be friendly and supportive, or creepy and exploitative. Residents in aged care homes, or people with a disability, can sometimes miss out on the benefits of being touched because of the need to protect them. Sometimes offering a hand massage, or a professional neck and shoulder massage, or a manicure, allows people to be touched in a way which is safe, and which helps them feel pampered and valued.

Tuning into our sense of touch is an easy and effective way of activating our parasympathetic nervous system, which is our resting and regenerating state. Even something as simple as paying attention to the sensations when we wash our hands is enough to trigger this state, especially if we use water which is slightly warm. Hopefully we wash our hands multiple times throughout the day. Each of these times is an opportunity to slow down, feel the cleansing water against the skin, smell the soap, breathe. Then we dry our hands, and tune into the sensations of this. We can then return to our activity refreshed, and feeling more present and grounded.

Weekly practice idea:

Each day, choose a different activity for tuning into your sense of touch. One day it could be washing your hands, the next running your hands over the bark of a tree, then it could be brushing the hair of your child. Notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane