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Dr. Sue Johnson: Tender Touch

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By:Dr. Sue Johnson/DivineCaroline

North Americans have been called one of the world’s least tactile people; we hold, hug, pat, stroke, fondle, and caress each other much less often than do other folks. Psychologists have suggested that we suffer from “touch hunger” and that this is just one of the signs of our ongoing loss of connection and community.

Most of us have fewer and fewer people to confide in and live our everyday lives on the edge of emotional isolation. Ironically, this is happening at a time when scientific studies are giving us the clear message that loneliness seriously harms our physical health, especially our hearts (literally!) and our resilience to stress.

This sense of isolation is a pivotal concern in love relationships. As a therapist, I know that when I ask a couple to tell me their story, they will immediately launch into tales of anger, fights, and frustration. But the real story begins emerges when someone says the word “lonely.” Partners tell me, “I am lonelier with him/her than when I am by myself!” and they weep. This deprivation, this loss of emotional connection, is most obvious when we are not touched or do not feel safe enough to reach and touch our loved one. Emotional and physical connection go together.

Why is this separateness is so devastating to people? The new science of love tells us that feeling a sense of connection to another is the deepest and most pressing need we have as human beings. Our social brain codes this connection as safety, and touch is the most obvious route into this safety. There is evidence that touch floods us with the cuddle hormone oxytocin. This chemical turns off stress hormones like cortisol and turns on the reward centers in our brain. With a simple touch, we feel recognized, soothed, comforted, and, in sexual contexts, aroused. Without this sense of connection, we feel emotionally deprived, even starved.

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