Column: A big hug is good for the soul

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Roger VanHaren

My late good friend Bob used to talk about “skin hunger.” Bob was an educator, and he maintained that kids need to have physical skin-to-skin contact with other people on a regular basis in order to be pyschologically sound. He thought it was one of the reasons that kids often punched each other or wrestled around with other kids. Maybe they weren’t getting enough “touches” at home.

You know what? I think skin hunger is a condition that applies to later life, too. It’s not just kids that need touches. Lots of adults may have received adequate contact as babies, but, for various reasons, no longer receive that same level of touch. I’m not a doctor, but I think sometimes these adults become isolated and defensive, or suffer intense feelings of loneliness.

There’s a lot of hugging and kissing in our family, even among the older kids — a 20-year-old and several teenagers. We like to hold each other, hug each other, kiss each other. We’re lucky, I guess.

A friend of ours told me that her favorite part of the Mass is the “sign of peace” because people all over the church are sharing handshakes, hugs, and kisses.

So why do we need touching and to be touched? Well, I think it’s because we’re social beings and we need to have a sense of being connected. It’s hard to feel pessimistic when you feel the confidence of being connected. Why do you suppose that “solitary confinement” is such a harsh punishment? A book I read recently (maybe John Grisham?) told of an innocent man who’d been on death row for nine years and deprived of human touch all those years. He was nearly insane from the lack of contact.

Touching can reduce anxiety. It can make us feel more secure. It keeps us grounded and makes us feel safe and not so all alone. Touching helps us to bond with others. I read somewhere that we need fourteen touches a day to maintain our well-being. I don’t know who did that research, but I agree that we definitely feel good about human contact.

We crave sensory input. Many people think that touch is our most important sense, even before sight and hearing. Everything from butterfly kisses to deep tissue massage can help us to satisfy our skin hunger. Shaking hands and hugging, pats on the back, holding hands, friendly pushing and shoving, even incidental bumping on the sidewalk or in the aisles – all of them are important. Cuddling, rocking, kissing, tickling. People seem to require a certain level of daily skin-to-skin contact in order to survive.

Maybe the telephone company has it right. Remember those old commercials? “Reach out and touch someone” today, but be sure to read their body language first. Unfortunately, we are living in an age where even non-sexual physical contact is becoming taboo. Ask Joe Biden about that.

Contact Roger VanHaren at