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Health, Loneliness and the Importance of Touch

Loneliness is a misery faced by people of all ages and social groups, and it has a serious impact on our health as well as on our happiness. The causes of loneliness are complex, and up to now researchers have focused on the issue of older people and loneliness. Families break up as a result of divorce, children move away to work in other cities and even other countries, leaving their parents isolated in retirement. And of course, when you don’t go to work there is no longer any reason to go out every morning and people lose the daily social contact most of us experience in the workplace.

However, in 2010 a Mental Health Foundation survey indicated that 18-34 year olds were even more likely to feel lonely, to feel concerned about being alone and to become depressed about loneliness than people over 55. Whilst there are day centres and charities which look after the elderly there are no youth service facilities for young people over 21.

For younger people, factors in modern life such as long working hours, internet shopping and getting in the car whenever we go out mean that some of us can go whole days without human contact. We no longer have the chat with the newsagent as we pick up the paper, throw the quick ‘hello’ to a fellow commuter we see on the same train every morning. Social media and the internet can be valuable ways of making and maintaining contact with others, but there is some evidence that they can replace face to face, personal relationships and encounters.

The problem of loneliness in western society is a focus for medical as well as social researchers, and some astounding facts have emerged. The physical effect of loneliness is as severe as smoking or alcoholism, and is more likely to lead to serious illness than obesity or failure to take exercise. At the Alzheimer’s International Congress in Washington in 2015 it was revealed that the loneliest people in one research study experienced accelerated cognitive decline approximately 20 per cent faster than people who were not lonely, regardless of demographic factors, health conditions and even depression. How can this be?

The answer is linked to brain functions. When we experience emotional pain, such as loneliness, the same areas of the brain are stimulated as when, for example, we break a wrist or stub our toe. There is evidence for this theory both from experiment and from real-life case studies. In the real-life scenario, people who had recently suffered relationship breakdown were shown pictures of the former partner, and this activated the centres in the brain which are triggered by physical pain. So, if someone tells you that your emotional suffering is ‘in your head’ they are right, but not in the way they mean! And what’s more, the pain of emotions such as social rejection is felt in the body and expressed in many painful and difficult ways.

The brain doesn’t exist in isolation, as there are direct neural connections from the brain stem down the spinal cord to the whole body, and the communications network works two ways – the brain sends messages to the body, the body feeds information back to the brain. Neurotransmitters such as hormones and immune cells are carried in both the circulatory and lymphatic systems, and their receptor sites are found in the brain which allows every cell to be linked into the nervous system.

We express this connection in ordinary speech. For example, when someone is lonely and feels rejected, they will describe themselves as having a broken heart, or being downhearted. Research indicates that when we are secure and feel loved, vagal-parasympathetic reactions enable us to breathe easily and the heart rate becomes steady and slows. However, negative feelings such as insecurity and loneliness produce sympathetic nervous reactions which elevate the heart rate and blood pressure. The heart and breathing lose their harmony and we may have a sense of tension in the chest or even chest pain. People suffering from hurt and rejection may adopt a downcast posture, with retracted chests and shoulders pulled forwards. This is a physical expression of self-protection, of closing off the heart area. It sends a ‘keep away’ message to other people, producing reactions from them which reinforce the sense of isolation and hurt.

The body expresses emotional pain in a variety of ways – if you wanted to scream at that man who whipped into the parking place in front of you, but the window was shut, then you may find your neck is stiff, your teeth are clamped together or your throat is tight.

Pain Gate Theory dates from the 1960s and explains that both large and small diameter nerve fibres transmit information from any injury site to the brain via the spinal cord. In addition, there are transmission cells that carry pain signals and inhibitory cells which slow down their activity. Any activity in either large or small diameter nerve fibres excites the transmission cells, but thin fibre activity impedes the inhibitory cells meaning that the pain signals travel efficiently whereas activity in large diameter fibres excites them. The increased activity in the inhibitory cells means that the pain is transmitted to the brain less efficiently. Put simply, if we bang our elbow we rub it to ease the pain, don’t we? Gentle touch excites the inhibitory cells.

Given that emotional and physical pain are experienced in the same way, we can ease emotional pain by cuddling, gentle massage, and simply by holding someone’s hand. We experience all kinds of pain, whether physical or psychological, in the same way – that is to say, in our bodies, and by offering gentle touch we can relieve pain whatever its cause.

Non-sexual, gentle, comforting touch is important to help us deal with the pain of bereavement, the loss of a relationship, rejection and loneliness. Sadly, there is a mass of taboo surrounding touch in many societies, including western countries. There is fear of touch in the workplace as sexual harassment is such a serious issue, teachers believe that they must never touch students even if they are hurt as this may lead to allegations of abuse. Add to this that many people, both elderly folk and young workers, live alone and don’t enjoy touch from family members – the quick hug when you get in from work, cuddling up to watch a film, even a simple act like holding hands.

Sadly, the thing most widows and widowers, divorcees and singletons facing relationship breakdown say that they miss is these simple acts of non-sexual touch which have become a no-no between colleagues and friends. Are there any answers to the dilemma?

Massage is one way of receiving unconditional touch, and it doesn’t necessarily involve disrobing in front of a stranger, lying on a couch and being pummelled for an hour! Shiatsu, Chinese Massage (Tuina) and Thai Yoga Massage actually require the client to be dressed in loose, modest clothing and they are active. This can be helpful for people who may have physical or psychological vulnerabilities. For individuals who have physical challenges or who simply don’t want full body treatments, there are lots of choices – reflexology, hand massage, facial treatments and facial massage, and of course foot massage. Most of these can be done either with or without oils and creams, as can the Asian body massage therapies.

Reiki can be offered as a form of gentle touch without pressure or rubbing with the hands, and the gentle holding of the hands on the client may be soothing and help the client achieve a sense of harmony and reconnection with themselves, at all levels of the person. It can be given either lying fully clothed and tucked up comfortably on a couch or sitting in a chair, and the Reiki practitioner will explain where they normally place their hands. It is always up to the client – I have given hour-long treatments simply touching the head and shoulders, and once I just held the person’s hands for the whole session.

Comforting touch is also offered in other ways – Comfort Touch is an American technique which involves simple holding of the feet, hands, shoulders with mindful intention, and it is used by both medical and lay people in informal and medical settings. Professional Cuddling is now becoming established as a way to fulfil the need for touch and non-sexual contact without conditions.

It is important that massage, Reiki and simple comforting touch are not medicalised and regulated as this will mean that people will not easily be able to find the emotional and physical comfort and sense of connection and companionship that they lack. There is no need for this to happen, although some organisations seek to hedge touch around with rules for their own commercial and professional reasons. The law about touch and abuse is clear, therapists work with clients who are over 18 and explain what their treatments involve, and they are insured for their own and their clients’ protection. We need to promote non-sexual touch in all contexts – there are movements to bring massage into school, massage is offered to workers in many offices, and some medical facilities continue to offer some holistic therapies to some patients although the provision is limited. We need more availability of cuddles, hugs, rubs and hand holding and it is essential for our mental, emotional and physical health to break down the taboos around touch!

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