The Power of Touch and Human Connection
Recently I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and saw this story from a friend and colleague that read: “Something to warm your heart while waiting for spring to arrive. Watch this video and start your day with a smile.”
How could I resist clicking on this video?? I was certainly in need of a good story to start of my day.
The video was about a longtime volunteer at New York-Presbyterian Hospital who is part of the “cuddler” program in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She holds and cuddles the smallest babies to give them comfort and love when their parents are not around. Not only does she touch them but she talks to them, sings to them and emotionally connects with them. My friend was right, this story did warm my heart and put a smile on my face.
But it also got me thinking…..
If we know there is power in simple touch, as research has shown, then why is touch so lost on us as we move into adulthood. If we know there is power in feeling connected to another which results in helping people relax, decrease anxiety/stress and potentially lessen pain, then why do focus more on babies than on adults in healthcare?
Is it that adults grow out of the need for touch and human connection?
I know for me, connection is important. I told a story in my last blog about my interaction with the person sitting next to me on the airplane on a flight back from Europe. What I didn’t mention is I can often be a nervous flyer. Our conversation, our connection reduced my anxiety about flying, significantly. As we talked to each other, we often tapped each other on the arm as we were talking. I believe that simple tap on the arm built a type of trust and safe feeling and lessened my anxiety.
Research has also demonstrated the effect pets have on their owners and their health. We cuddle with them, we hold them and in turn we feel really good. Pets have been shown to calm anxiety and stress and I have already told my husband “I need a dog for my health (and possibly a second one to double the effect).” I really believe my dog calms me. All I have to do is touch her, pet her and I can feel much of my stress melt away. She always makes me smile.
So back to my point. I do work in healthcare and specifically in the area of improving the overall healthcare experience for patients. Recently, I attended and presented at the The Beryl Institute Patient Experience Conference. The meeting brought 1100 patient experience professionals and patients from 20 countries around the world to talk about how to make the patient experience in healthcare better than it is today.
What I know to be true is healthcare is complicated for patients and hospital staff alike and the human connection is often lost, on both sides, which can lead to a negative experiences and increased stress. How many times have you gone to the doctor, a clinic or hospital and felt that things could have gone better?
When we are sick, we are often frightened and vulnerable. I know the feeling all to well, remembering so many instances in my own healthcare journey. Being told that I had cancer, while I sat in the chair all alone, not once but twice. Both times my heart was beating out of my chest and the distress I felt seemed insurmountable in the moment. I wonder if someone had taken my hand, a simple calming touch, if that would have helped relax me in the moment?
I remember countless times, lying on a stretcher waiting to be wheeled into a scan that would determine the extent of my disease and I was scared out my mind, again, alone in the moment. Just a squeeze of a hand may have melted some of the that anxiety away.
I have been a long-term patient for almost 29 years and have had both good and bad experiences. What I know for sure is I remember how I felt in both the good and the bad. I remember telling my chemotherapy nurse, who I spent the majority of my time with, as treatments can be long and quite grueling, how I would always remember her, she would always be embedded in my life. She laughed it off and said “Oh, you won’t remember me years later when you are back to your busy life.” She was so wrong. We had spent hours talking about our lives (hers and mine) and our hopes, dreams and fears. We had these chats when I was most vulnerable and afraid. You don’t forget that, ever.
My oncologist connected with me as well on a personal level and 29 years later, I still remember his touch on my shoulder, melting my fears and giving me the courage and focus to do all I had to do to get better.
People often don’t realize the impact they make on our lives. It can be the smallest interaction, the smallest thing that we can remember for years.
In life, our personal connections can inspire us, energize us, comfort us and help us to forge on. This is not just about healthcare. It is about understanding that outcomes and our own mental health can often be influenced by human connection.
I am worried because in this #MeToo world, we may lose some of the human touch for fear of inappropriateness. I think that is unfortunate.
I truly believe from experience that emotional connection with our caregivers is so important to our health and recovery. Today, there are many demands placed on physicians, nurses and staff. I do believe that patients are often more understanding of those demands than staff may believe. What we do want is that human connection, to be treated as a whole person. We want our families/caregivers to matter too. We want to be listened to connected to on a personal level.
We need that connection the same way a baby needs to be held and nurtured.
No matter our age we need nurturing and attention. A simple smile, a tap on the shoulder a short interaction can make the biggest impact on our lives and our wellbeing.
I would also argue that human touch doesn’t have to be actual touch, it can be sharing ourselves with each other, breaking down the walls between patient and caregiver and creating an experience a connection that both sides can embrace and enjoy.
David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins writes, “from tool use to chronic pain to the process of healing, the genes, cells, and neural circuits involved in the sense of touch have been crucial to creating our unique human experience. The more we learn about touch, the more we realize just how central it is in all aspects of our lives—cognitive, emotional, developmental, behavioral—from womb into old age. It’s no surprise that a single touch can affect us in multiple, powerful, ways.”
Life moves so fast these days and technology helps us move even faster. It is so easy to lose our most basic skill, that of touching one another (whether an actual physical touch or touching each other in a non physical way). We are never to old for a hug and understanding how the most simple gesture can be so powerful.
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