Thriving Through Human Contact


by Dr. Kathleen Quinn, MD

Most of us love that feeling of peace we get when we hug a loved one. The truth is all human beings need to be stroked, cuddled and touched with warmth, affection and approval. The need is present across our lifespans.

In babies, failure to thrive is linked to a lack of touching and appropriate meaningful cradling. In the elderly, there is a similar phenomena called “skin hunger” where the senior adult fails to thrive because of the lack of touch.

Chemical Connections

In the human body there are two primary chemicals released with skin touch, one of those is related to common vitamin B6. Without appropriate levels of B6, there can be defects in processing and transmitting sensory information. From the initial touch to transmission to the brain requires 0.01 seconds. That is important.

What is more important is our heartbeat responds to the same touch in 1 second and respiration responds in 4-5 seconds. This sensory information moves to the brain and back to heart and lungs in tiny amounts of time.

Responding to Sensations

The beginning of all relationships starts in the uterine environment where we floated, interacted with our surroundings and developed responses to sensations through the skin. This sensitivity to skin stimulation persists after birth through our connections, or lack thereof, with parents and persons in our environment.

The simplest view of this has to do with touch. How we are touched, stroked and cuddled, or not, shapes our brains and bodies. We know in the mind/body interconnection these two aspects are so woven together they are inseparable. This is part of how we understand attachment. If a parent cannot touch a child appropriately, that child will not learn emotional attachment to the parent, which shapes all adult attachments in later life.

Research indicates that male children are touched less than female children, and that persists over their adolescence until they are infrequently touched except for sports, fights or male bonding play (punching and wrestling). Then we expect them to become capable of tenderness, touching other than for sexual contact and parenting their children. If we become what we learn and experience, then lack of touch is a serious matter. Link that to the cardiac and respiratory response times and it becomes obvious that on just a physiologic level there can be serious consequences.

Intentional Touch

What is communicated through skin touch is attachment and intentionality. We learn a sensory response to the act of being touched, and we learn to read the intention of the other through the quality of the touch. We learn emotional responses to touch based on our conscious and unconscious awareness of what the touch means.

In our parenting relationships if we touch, we must touch with clear intentionality because the response physiologically in the heart and lungs is less than 5 seconds. Whether we touch with anger, abuse, violence or compassion, love and support, the process is the same. There is a mind/ body effect where the brain receives the impulse and the body is responding just as the meaning is assessed. This becomes very important in the process of building adult relationships.

Dr. Kathleen C. QuinnDr. Kathleen C Quinn holds a doctorate in Marriage and Family Psychotherapy and master’s degrees in Women’s Health Nursing, WHNPBC, Theological Studies, Religious Education and Guidance and Counseling. Dr. Quinn uses her background in both integrative nursing and psychotherapy in her clinical practice at Discovery Integrative Healthcare Centers and in her role as executive director of the National Sexual Trauma Center. For more information, visit For an appointment with Dr. Quinn for psychotherapy in San Antonio, call 601-467-0041.

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