holding hands

Though we're social distancing during the pandemic, don't forget to "keep in touch."

From the moment you and I are conceived, we are bombarded by the experience of touch. Over the next seven to nine months we languish in our mother’s amniotic fluid, much like relaxing at the ocean and feeling the warmth of the sun.

Then suddenly, without warning, we are awakened by compression all around us, squeezing on us as we are pushed into the birth canal and ushered out into the cold empty world.

From this time forth, we will never forget the loss of the touch we experienced in our mother’s body. For us it was all nurturing, comfortable and able to supply all our needs. At birth, we are suddenly faced with a dilemma of dealing with an environment that is cold, hostile and without form to our unfocused eyes.

This experience is celebrated as a supreme event in the history of the family. Little do we appreciate that the child just born is confronted with total dependence for his or her life upon someone else. One of the great psychiatrists went so far as to name the occurrence “the birth trauma.” As I recall, he believed that much of the neurosis and psychotic behavior had its genesis in the trauma of birth.

I cannot say with any assurance that this man’s theory was correct; however, the reality of touching has been extremely important in the development of all of us, and I currently wonder about the effects of things like social distancing, conversations on cellphones rather than face to face, teleconferencing with our doctors and the major separations that occur so frequently in the course of our lives.

It appears to me that technology has influenced our culture to such an extent that it is separating us rather than drawing us together.

Research on touch

Because of my work as a pastor and psychotherapist, I have been interested in the research that has been done through the years, in different populations, regarding touch. I recall in the old Soviet Union a study that was done by American psychologists in the baby houses of Russia, where babies were taken from their mothers at birth and placed in large warehouses — where they were kept in cribs and attended by older women. The separation of the child from the family was seen to be a strategy to influence the child’s loyalty, bonding the child to the state as parent rather than to the family of birth.

There was a rule at the time that these children were not to be touched except when absolutely necessary. Touching usually only occurred at feeding time and diapering. The research showed that children in the baby houses withdrew into isolation in their cribs and would not look at any of the women who cared for them. This pattern followed intense crying and head turning away from anyone approaching, but after a while the child succumbed to the isolation.

Although this might seem strange to us living in the 21st century, unfortunately it has not been many months since we experienced a similar situation where children were separated from their families on our southern border and placed in cages.

I remember at the time how many health care professionals came forth expressing distress about the devastating emotional effects that this treatment would have upon children and their parents. Again, this is another testimony to the power of touch and how important a role it plays in human relationships and development.

As a mental health professional in this age of social distancing, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be wise in our touching, limiting it to close family and people that we trust to practice defensive hygiene with the virus.

However, do not stop touching!

If there ever was a time when we need affection, hugs and appropriate closeness, this is the time. If you are old, young or somewhere in between, the physical, emotional and spiritual nurture that comes from touching and being touched cannot be overestimated.

A loving touch reminds us of the time our mother held us to her breast, kissed the scratch and made the hurt go away.

It reminds us of when we have been cuddled by our lover, and the memory lingers on.

It is these precious moments that have touched us, never to be forgotten.

It is devastating to be “out of touch,” lonely and alone, always hoping to be in touch with someone who will love us. Please allow yourself a regular opportunity to be held or hugged, by someone you trust, and be mindful of the touch that you share.

Robert Olson is a pastoral psychologist and family therapist who specializes in geriatric issues. He invites comments and speaking invitations at robertolsonbdma@gmail.com.