Therapeutic Hugs and Touching

In a recent conversation with one of our "huggie" parishioners, I was reminded of this. She has spent a lot of time in Egypt where the culture is VERY huggie--to the point of ignoring what most Westerners would consider "personal boundaries". She also works with children and teens. Her comment that started our discussion was about how sometimes she wants so badly just to hug them because she knew that was really what they need--even her 17 year olds.

My wife is a middle school teacher. Her kids sometimes refer to her as Mom or Mama Yardley (my grandmother's name). Even her Principal has referred to her as Mama Yardley. So many time we have discussed how badly some her kids just need to be hugged.

I am a mental health therapist, and many times I have had the same feelings about some of my clients. Sometimes these clients do not give me an option.

All three of us are in helping professions--and all three of us are essentially forbidden from hugging our kids or clients. My professional insurance company goes into cardiac arrest if they thought I might dare even touch a client.

I grew up in a non-huggie family, relatively speaking. I love hugs, both getting and receiving them. Because of my upbringing, I often find myself hesitating to give them. I have to consciously work to overcome my early childhood and our culture's restrictions,

Dannion Brinkley Hugs

Several years ago I had a chance to meet author, Dannion Brinkley (to see my article on our meeting, click here). Dannion is a real huggie guy. Dannion is not a timid hugger. He is a big bear hugger. His bugs are big and long. We talked about it once.

He said from his near death experiences (yes, he has had more than one), he wants to give all the hugs he can because he learned he will get to re-experience all of them. He will get them all back when he dies. He is looking forward to them.

Psychobiology of hugs (and touching)

The science indicates that hugs and touch are a basic human need. Well, more technically, touch is. I'm taking liberty here to extend touch to hugs from my own personal experiences, not the science.

The Twin Sisters

From Reader's Digest, May 1955, pp 155-156. A true story.

Two sisters were born prematurely. The twins were immediately placed in separate incubators.The weaker of the two was not expected to live. A sympathetic nurse watched as the weaker twin continued to decline, slipping ever closer to death. Defying hospital rules and physicians instructions late one night and following her intuition, she placed the two twins together. The healthy twin threw her small arm over her sickly sister. The smaller twins heart beat began to quickly stabilized and her vital signs took a U-turn and started coming up. The two sisters grew up healthy, thriving together.

Failure-to-Thrive Syndrome

This story is an example of what has become known as the "failure-to- thrive" syndrome. Also called psychosocial dwarfism, it has been known for some time for human infant orphans that have been institutionalized without the normal amount of touch, even when warmth, food, and care are provided (Gardner, 1972). When pediatric nurses supplied the missing touch (tender and loving), the babies' growth pattern returned to normal within hours. (See Rossi, 2002, pp 15-17).

This syndrome has also been observed in homes by social workers where homes were psychosocially inadequate. These babies were found to have low levels of growth hormone.

 The importance of touch has been studied and noted in other mammals, including, other primates, mice, rats, puppies, and kittens. In rat pups, stroking with a soft brush was sufficient to permit normal growth.

Gene Expression and Touch

It has been found that touch activates the expression of the c-myc and max genes, which in turn activate the Odc (ornithine decarboxylase) gene. Turning on the Odc gene in turn leads to the synthesis of proteins that contribute to cellular growth and maturation. Even short terms of separation of infant and mother can cause a decrease in these genes and their proteins.

These studies pertain to developing infants. What about adults? Does touch stimulate a similar or related response in adults? An Internet search did not bring up any research studies to this effect. It is difficult to do such studies because the responding tissues cannot be readily sampled. It is one thing to grind up or dissect rats, another to do such on humans. My educated guess (hypothesis) is that a whole series of genes in adults respond to touch--and especially hugs.

References

Psychobiology-Index

Neurogenesis and Healing

Addiction and the Teen Brain

The Triune Brain
Stress

State-Dependent Memory, Learning, and Behaviors and Trauma

Basic Genetics Series

Nature and Mind

  • Clinical Psychobiology