The touch that heals: The art of comforting a loved one

A minimum of eight hugs a day can make you feel better and behave better

Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

A touch can make you cry. A touch can give you hope. Just ask my friend, Sara. She adopted a beautiful baby boy who was left, wrapped in a newspaper, outside an orphanage. With limpid black eyes, and skin the colour of coffee, this boy, let us call him Rohan, was bright and alert as he lay back in his crib, staring at the musical toy above him. There was only one issue. He was not soothed by touch, by being carried. Quite the opposite. A touch could make him cry. The stretched orphanage staff had allowed him to “self-soothe,” to use medical parlance.

I tried this too once upon a time with my girls. Inspired by my friend who had delivered triplets and was practicing what she called “Ferberization,” which basically meant that you allowed babies to cry themselves to sleep, I too, held out for two long nights listening to my baby cry before rushing into the room to pick her up and rock her to sleep.

How do you comfort yourself when you are sad? How do you comfort loved ones when they are sad? For most of us, it is a hug. Before humans invented words, we hugged to share joy and sorrow. Touch is a primal instinct. Being held releases the “feel good,” hormone called oxytocin, inducing feelings of trust and love. American neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak has spent his life researching this. Going by the media-friendly moniker of Dr Love, Zak advocates hugging – a minimum of eight per day – as a way of improving not just how you feel, but also how you behave. Hugging someone for 30 seconds is even better.

As he says in his book, The Moral Molecule, Zak believes that this simple hormone controls not just how we feel but also determines “what makes us good or evil.” In other words, he calls oxytocin the “moral molecule,” which keeps society together by inducing feelings of virtue, trust and love for one’s fellow man. Oxytocin is produced when we do good to others. Other research corroborates this. As the book Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn shows you, money can indeed buy happiness. Doing good leads to feeling good. You don’t need much. Give your auto-driver an extra ~ 20 and watch his face transform into a smile. Unexpected acts of kindness lead to wellness. Give the beggar a bottle of chilled water and watch her face light up. You will feel good.

Zak has, in fact, bottled this hormone. In his TED talk, he tried a stunt. He got up on stage and sprayed oxytocin into the crowd. Research had shown, he said, that people who inhale oxytocin would be more empathetic, trusting and good in the virtuous sense of the word.

Denmark has taken this one step further with its Hug a Jihadi campaign, which attempts to rehabilitate extremists by supporting them rather than making them outcasts. Other versions call it Hug a Terrorist. In their own way, Narendra Modi and Munnabhai have understood the power of a hug.

Being held releases the “feel good” hormone called oxytocin, inducing feelings of trust and love…

Sara doesn’t care for all this research. She simply wants to teach her baby boy the power of touch. She wants to hold and comfort him rather than have him become used to “self-soothing.” She wants to be a mother.

Her own parents have come to her rescue. They are Rohan’s caregivers when Sara is at work. Colonel-Uncle as we call him, is not by nature a hugger, but when it comes to his grandson, all his military discipline falls away. He becomes a cooing, babbling grandfather who pays no heed to Rohan’s bawling. He simply holds the baby for what seems like eternity. Eventually Rohan stops crying. Eventually.

Aunty is less involved in the hugging and more worried about the bathing and the feeding, all of which happen with military precision and routine. Babies love routine. Babies love to be cuddled, or should. That was the thesis anyway. Together, Aunty and Uncle broke down their grandson’s defenses. They changed his disposition.

Recently, when I visited Sara, Rohan was crawling all over the place. He was touching everything, getting hit, hurting himself. I watched this little bundle of energy with pleasure and pride for my friend. I hugged her with delight. We both released oxytocin, presumably, for I felt a warm glow. And then it happened. Rohan hit his head and began crying. Three people rushed towards him. But Uncle got there first. He lifted up his grandson and rocked him in his arms. Within a few minutes, Rohan calmed down. His eyes locked with his grandfather’s and they both smiled.

A touch can make you cry. A touch can give you hope. Ask me. I had tears in my eyes that day.

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight F

From HT Brunch, March 3, 2019

BRUNCH Updated: Mar 02, 2019 19:51 IST

Shoba Narayan

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