“Almost everyone has experienced moments in life when grief is so intense that words seem inadequate, or the suffering you witness almost makes you avert your gaze,” says Robert Sheeler, M.D. Medical Editor — Mayo Clinic Health Letter.
“It can be tempting to physically and emotionally withdraw from painful situations, such as when a friend’s partner dies or your relative faces a terminal illness. You want to guard your own emotions, or you fear being perceived as inappropriate or invading another’s personal space.
“While these concerns can be valid, such an approach risks loneliness and isolation for all those involved. Multiple studies have shown that feeling isolated from others has a number of negative health effects, including accelerated aging, depression, cognitive decline and increased risk of heart disease.
“The role of companionship under difficult circumstances need not be as complicated as you might think. In fact, it can be as simple as holding a hand. Connecting through touch or just being present in a quiet, mindful way can bridge the divide between individual — and unique — sorrows and provide immeasurable comfort.
Touch as medicine
“Many health care providers intuitively sense that a compassionate touch or presence can help to alleviate pain and discomfort in their patients. A sympathetic hand on the arm can help a person absorb difficult news, or an encouraging pat on the shoulder may provide motivation toward recovery.
I would like to interrupt Dr. Sheeler’s words to mention that I have written about the benefits of human touch in the form of hugging as well as companionship. Check out my post What is the value of hugging? and 22 Ways dogs make humans better for more details.
Dr. Sheeler continued, “More-formal approaches to incorporating touch into medicine generally fall under the umbrella of complementary therapies that aim to support traditional treatments and improve quality of life. Some touch therapies focus on manipulating soft tissue, others on tuning into your energy. Most help you relax.
“Massage therapy, for example, manipulates your muscles, skin and tendons. Almost everyone feels better after a massage. Studies have shown it can reduce anxiety, pain and fatigue.
“Reiki, on the other hand, is an energy therapy where the practitioner’s hands are placed on or a few inches above the recipient’s body. Different hand positions are held about two to five minutes until the practitioner feels that the flow of energy has slowed or stopped. Recipients sometimes describe a feeling of warmth and relaxation after a session. Reiki has been used to treat stress, pain and nausea from chemotherapy.
“Examples of other touch therapies include reflexology, which focuses on specific parts of the body, deep tissue massage, spinal manipulation and healing (therapeutic) touch.
“In an era dominated by virtual communication such as by cellphones, the Internet and wireless technology, it can be even more important to realize the value of being physically close. An arm around the shoulder of a family member or friend in need of comfort can often do more good than an email.
“Humans need to be near each other to be mentally, emotionally and physically healthy. The next time you’re tempted to withdraw, try reaching out instead. Since comfort levels with touch vary, you may need to ask for permission first, but offer and give a hug, link arms, sit close.
“Life is richer when you share the highs and lows together — words aren’t always necessary.
Want more great health information related to this subject? Read more about these types of medical practices and treatments in the Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine.