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Starving for Physical Contact

What do rugby and massage have in common? Both involve copious amounts of human touch. In fact, I spent a good part of my college career playing rugby for that very reason. In the sport of rugby, I found something I hadn’t previously realized was missing from my life: abundant human contact. Yes, I had many friends and schoolmates to be sure, but in my Western culture, even close friends don’t regularly touch more than the odd high-five or shoulder pat. As a part of my college rugby team, however, I was repeatedly embraced, tugged, pushed, lifted, nudged, hugged, shoved, and carried. After a lifetime of being taught to respect others’ “personal space,” it felt like a tactile feast for my starving cutaneous mechanoreceptors (skin touch sensors).

It felt good to lend my body to the physical support of my teammates during a ruck or a scrum, creating a wall of our bodies to push against the bodies of our opponents. It felt good to, in order to steal the ball, grab my opponent’s pelvis, pull her to the ground, and land on top of her. And it felt pretty awesome to pick my friend up and push her into the air (all just so someone could throw the ball extra high and she could catch it way up there). Honestly, rugby was just an elaborate way to get a lot of hugs while also exercising.

Some years later, as I pondered my career path, I found myself drawn to massage therapy in part due to the promise of lots of human contact. I remembered how nurturing it felt to play rugby—giving and receiving companionship not just with words and smiles, but physical touch. In this world that you and I live in, touch is often a rare commodity, given only to those closest to us. Sometimes, it is scarce even in those relationships that absolutely need it, such as between a child and its parents. Yet, we know that touch is important. We know not only from extensive scientific study but also intuitively that tactile contact is dramatically influential during an infant’s first experiences of life. An infant who is held, carried, and nursed by its parents derives a sense of reassurance, support, and security through this constant tactile stimulation. The infant is then able to develop physiologically and psychologically from a foundation of trust in its support systems. The impact of touch on our psychosomatic health doesn’t end with childhood. Sometime during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, my 93-year-old neighbor received a hug from my three-year-old child. With tears in her eyes, she told me it was the first hug she had had in months. For most of us, her tears are no mystery; we understand the significance of that simple act. Touch conveys a more palpable message than words alone.

As much as I’d love to, I can’t simply change the culture I live in to include more tactility. I need to respect the personal bubbles that we all have developed. However, I can offer a source of compassionate, thoughtful touch through massage. While my work is about so much more, massage therapy is invaluable simply for providing the experience of receiving touch from another human being. Giving massage also offers a pathway to touch amongst people who have been raised with little tactile contact. It provides a context for us to explore this physical form of connection where the purpose is explicitly non-sexual. It doesn’t have to be complicated. For instance, when I exchange massage with my young daughter, she may simply stroke my hand and forearm a few times. Even that small act feels incredibly soothing.

So, this is what I have to say to you:

Get a massage. It can be from a friend, partner, relation, or offspring. Just ask. If all they do is lay a hand on you, you will at the very least feel more connected. If you don’t have someone from whom you can receive massage, or if you’d like something with greater purpose, that’s what I’m here for. Relieving stress and regulating the nervous system are just part of what can be achieved with professional massage.

Give a massage. You have people in your life that you care about. Show them with your touch. If it feels awkward, try sticking to the extremities--hands or feet. You can bestow comfort, reassurance, consolation, security, calm. You can communicate friendship, trust, love. You can encourage health, wellness, peace of mind. Maybe it can take the form of a new bedtime ritual, a wind-down after work, or even a post-rugby game exchange.

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