The Magic of Touch in Healing

Jane Biehl, Ph.D.

Sometimes I think I should have been an anthropologist. I am fascinated by other cultures and religions and pounce on every chance to learn about them. Here in the U.S., we often make the mistake of thinking we are a more civilized culture. Recently, however, many of us are realizing that having the latest fashions, technology or multimillion-dollar houses doesn’t make it so.

What are we missing? Many practitioners, medical people and patients are turning to the Far East for treatments instead of the traditional surgeries and pills. Increasing numbers of Americans are using acupuncture, essential oils, natural lotions and many other treatments we consider “new” that other countries have known about for centuries.

One aspect the majority of people in the United States considers important is personal space. There are several reasons for this. We usually have fewer people in a larger house, and may have two or three people in a home with floor space of several thousand feet. Other countries and many immigrants may have an entire family of five or more people in a two-bedroom apartment. The reason for some of this is economic. Large homes are unattainable for many families both here and abroad. One of the cultural “norms” in America is allowing a foot and a half of space between two persons who are talking. We often are uncomfortable if someone gets too close to us. This is not right or wrong – just different. If we travel to a country like China or India with billions of people, there is no room for a large personal space. And there is a drawback. Americans become uncomfortable and afraid of touch.

I have several friends who are in the deaf culture, and it is an entirely separate culture from that of the United States. If one visits a social outing or church for the deaf, you will see hugging all around. I think part of this is when one sense is missing, other senses like vision and touch become even more important.

Another reason for the problem with personal space is because of criminals, who have done horrible things to others, especially children. When I was a counselor, I was warned not to hug a child, because the wrong impression could be given of sexual misconduct. While I understood the reason for not hugging, in many ways I felt this was unfortunate.

Why? Because touch can be healing and beautiful. Witness the popularity of Reiki and massage therapy, which is healing through the hands. When I have had some terrible moments in the cancer center, I have asked the doctor and nurses for a hug. I don’t want to get them into trouble, but that is what I want and need. If someone is uncomfortable with this, just a hand on my hand or shoulder means everything. We don’t communicate by words alone.

If I am trying to comfort someone who is grieving, I can’t find words to help. After someone has lost a loved one or been told they have an incurable illness, what do you say? The person may just need to vent, cry, be angry and grieve. They don’t expect or need a response. Rather than looking for the right words, I will ask them “Do you want a hug?” I rarely have anyone say no. Many religions such as Christianity preach the power of healing touch. How did Jesus heal people? By touching them!

I have a service dog and have complained many times about the people who run up and absolutely have to pet her when she is working. This distracts her from alerting me to sounds and is actually dangerous. However, when she is out of vest and can be petted, she has comforted many people just by being there and allowing them to stroke her. There is a reason for therapy dogs!

Americans have a lot to learn. We need to embrace the importance of not always talking, but of touching. I have been so lucky. I have a pastor who hugs me when I feel bad. I have to be honest, one day I asked my oncologist for a hug. She did and then told me I should write an article on that! So this essay is dedicated to her! Let us never forget the healing of a simple touch.
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