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Handle with Care

She placed her hand on my cheek. Such a small gesture, yet its tenderness meant so much to me.

You see, I hadn’t let myself really process the fact that my mom has blood cancer. It’s easier to make appointments and take her grocery shopping and keep busy being useful. Helpful. Hopeful.

But deep in my soul I’m running out of time. And I don’t want to think about it or talk about it. Confiding in my friend and feeling her compassion took a load off that I didn’t even realize I’d been carrying.

Human touch. It changes the outcome; of a baby and the mom who cuddles it; of a garden and the hand that tends it; of a marriage, a meal, a moment. We use our hands all day long, but have you thought about what impact your hands are making?

You don’t have to be an artist to pick up a brush and let yourself add color to a page. You don’t have to be a florist to pick up some flowers and arrange them in a vase. You don’t have to be a priest to place your hands on a hurting friend and pray for their comfort.

Sure there are skills that require a lot of practice to master, but hands were made for touching and extending yourself into the world. Have you ever watched a baby discover their hands? The sheer amazement that they can extend themselves beyond what they can see opens up a world of possibility. The baby learns – and we all continue to learn – that we have the power to interact with and change the world around us.

And the effects of touch are not limited to the immediate. Experts now say that the right kind of touch can lower your blood pressure, improve your outlook, and even make you better at math. There's a reason for that: Your skin is your body's largest organ, and when its sensory receptors are stimulated, the hormone oxytocin — the one that makes you feel good, aka “the love hormone” — is released. At the same time, cortisol, the stress hormone, is reduced.

"Touch is a much more sophisticated system than we ever realized," says Matthew J. Hertenstein, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at DePauw University. Researchers at the University of Miami had people do a difficult math problem, then had them do it again after receiving a chair massage. Post-massage, subjects showed increased speed and accuracy in solving the problems as well as more pleasure in the task, thanks to the reduction of stress.

Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, discovered that athletes who frequently give each other a high five or a "good job!" pat during games do better in team sports than the ones who don't physically interact. While the flying chest bumps that pro athletes share are probably not part of your work environment, you can practice what Keltner calls "smart touch: encouraging pats on the back, friendly handshakes, and playful fist bumps." Here’s a video in which he describes the science of touch.

In today’s society when it’s much easier to communicate through our devices and purchase things already made by another’s hand, the need for touch can seem like a lost art. But as this video explains and I experienced recently, touch matters. It matters to the one getting it and also to the one giving it.

“To touch can be to give life,” said Michelangelo.

So let’s reach out in loving, building, meaningful ways today. You just may make someone's day.

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