“Something seems amiss: Millions of us now click into our social lives each day, count 100, 300, even 500+ friends in our networks, and yet somehow move through the entire day without having experienced one human-to-human, warm-bodied hug.” (Curt Pesman Hug Therapy: High-Touch Healing in a High-Tech World)
I’ve often wondered what effect does a lack of human affection have on mental illness?
A few months ago, I picked up a supplemental shift at our local residential treatment home for severely mentally and behaviorally challenged adolescents. Their was a young boy who lived there who was roughly ten, but had the mentality of a five year old. At one point after dinner, and the other children were playing games, he expressed the need to go to what is called the safe room for some personal space. Shortly after, loud sobbing and howling-like sounds were coming from the room. When I checked on the kiddo to see if everything was alright, he was curled up in a fetal position holding his knees tight against his chest.
The amount of emotion he was expressing was more than I have ever seen a child his age display. At one point I thought he may be having an actual mental breakdown. When he began to calm on his own, I consulted another staff member to review the staff guidelines on touching residents. I have a five year old son, and I could instinctively feel this child just needed a hug. When advised against it, I asked him if he needed a pillow or something to hold. He immediately asked for his stuffed bunny from his bed. My heart broke as he held this bunny tightly, knowing that what he really needed was a warm appropriate embrace from another human. If he were my son, I would’ve been on the ground with him holding him and probably crying alongside him. Because life is just too hard to deal with alone.
I think it is sad we live in a day and age of fear-based agendas and have become overly sensitive to perceived liability that we overlook the obvious. Give the kid a hug.
I have a theory about the effects of human touch, and the lack of, on people in general. I’m sure it is not my own theory as there are many studies and research that promote this way of thinking. Our brains have a pleasure circuit. The same part of our brain that is stimulated by drugs and alcohol is the same that is stimulated by love and affection. If a person is feeling isolated and alone, and they have a tendency to use substances to numb the pain of loneliness, this could becomes a problem. Many mental illnesses have anxiety and depression as a common denominator. Studies prove that most individuals who have a substance use disorder also have a co-occurring mental illness.
Could a simple embrace detour someone struggling with depression from making a self harming decision and point them towards hope? By stimulating that part of the brain, could it release enough endorphin to completely change a person’s course? We already know that exercise can do this. Could a hug do the same?
If individuals who struggle with a substance use disorder or mental illness find the courage to seek professional help, this can be the biggest obstacle towards the road to recovery. If struggling individuals can get to a safe place to talk about their issues with a professional and find solidarity with others on their journey, they are on the pathway to healing. Many require medication to monitor and stabilize moods and behaviors associated with the illness or even the most minimal forms of depression or anxiety. All of this therapy is proven to help significantly, otherwise I wouldn’t be in my line of work. I believe in what I do. I also believe that people desperately need to know they are acknowledged, appreciated, and affirmed with a simple touch.
Certainly there are traumatizing experiences which have to do with a person’s being the victim of inappropriate physical touch. I am certain that this increases the fears of someone who has experienced such abuse, making it difficult to let others in. This may need to be worked through sensitively, as the person learns what appropriate affection can look and feel like.
Countless stories, studies and research prove that human touch has been known to keep a newborn infant alive during the early first hours of life. There are also stories of doctors prescribing hugs for patients who have responded positively and improved the healing process by simply being touched. “In a world that has grown more complicated, more fierce in the demands made upon our hearts and pocket books, there is one easy, free gift left. The power of touch.” (Kathleen Keating; “Hug Therapy”)
As an overall society are we missing a therapeutic component which can’t be as easily prescribed? While it would be completely inappropriate for a mental health provider to prescribe a non platonic companionship or give their patient a hug, maybe that is all they really need at the moment. We try to get people to talk, but maybe they just want to be held. (Members of the legal and medical community are squirming, at this point of the conversation.)
Perhaps a simple touch could release the right amount of endorphin’s to the pleasure part of the brain that could actually keep a person from engaging in problematic behaviors or using substances. What if cuddle therapy wasn’t such a frowned upon thing?
Have we gone too far in creating barriers of fear and confused what kind of affection is appropriate and inappropriate? Are we more concerned with being professional than doing the right thing?
There’s another young man I’ve worked with who is known at school as the “hugger”. Part of his treatment plan was to learn more about personal space. I honestly struggled with this, because I’m wondering if we are trying to deprogram a child from what it means to be human. (Disclaimer: These thoughts are completely my own and don’t in anyway reflect those of my employer.) Some people are “huggers”. I’m okay with that. I appreciate huggers, as I mentioned in my previous post. In some circles, hugging is more socially acceptable than others. It’s not a bad thing, and I struggle with the idea of training a child otherwise. While we’ve done a good job educating our children about “Stranger Danger”, have we gone too far in raising generations of people living in fear of just anyone?
What would our corner of the world look like if we allowed others to invade our space more often? What if we hugged more? What if some of the more common displays of affection which are culturally relevant in other parts of the world and have significant historical presence were to become more normalized within what has become an independent society? Would we see a decrease in mental illnesses and substance abuse? Could people possibly live more physically healthy and productive lives by simply hugging more? There is plenty of research and studies to prove this might be the case.
So, what are you waiting for? Get a little closer. Hug a little more. Hesitate less. We are here to learn how to live and love well. Relationships are the core of our existence. Maybe we could all benefit from hugging more and pushing away less.
To my fellow warriors who are wrestling with all the struggle and brokenness that comes with being human. Know that you are not alone and there is beauty and hope in all of this. Wrap your arms around yourself, if you must, and just know that you are loved.