Holding hands is a basic yet powerful gesture of closeness. It makes us feel good. And when we don’t get it, we can be the worse off for it. Why does holding hands matter?

Kristina Vogel, an Olympic and European gold cyclist, said that shortly after the accident that left her paralysed she asked a fellow cyclist “Hold my hand … don’t leave me alone. Don’t let go of my hand.”

Why does holding hands matter? And why do we miss out so much when we don’t get it?

While there may be age, social and cultural differences regards holding hands in public, it is generally a sign of affection, trust and warmth. It is a sign of non-sexual intimacy.

1. Touch is life-enhancing and lack of it life-damaging.

A study in 2000 carried out among Romanian children in orphanages showed that lack of human touch, utter abandonment and worse had let to severely delayed mental, physical and emotional development.

We human beings are social creatures, we seek closeness. Because of the experiences we have made with our fellow humans, we may not trust such closeness and actively avoid it. Yet, we are meant to have it. It is good for us.

Studies suggest that human touch helps release hormones like oxytocin (OT) in our brain. That reduces anxiety and increases feelings of trust and compassion.

We all know the warm and fuzzy feeling we crave for and get from a well-intentioned touch.

I say well-intentioned, because as we know touch is powerful and can also hurt, lie, betray, harm and make us recoil.

2. Loneliness and lack of touch

The lack of physical touch and affection is a central element of feeling lonely. Not having positive skin contact can increase anxiety and depression.

A few years after my father’s death, my mother commented on how long she has not been touched. The physical absence of the other in her life pained her deeply. On one of my visits I chose to lie in the marital bed with her – she on ‘my father’s side’ and I on ‘her side’. It was the best sleep she had had in ages. The mere physical presence of a familiar person in the same room and bed was enough for her.

My maternal grandmother spent most of her life as a single divorcee – very hard during the 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. She was left bereft missing physical affection, which she only got from her child, my mother. As a teenager I disliked her attempts of grabbing me for a kiss and a cuddle. How I wish I could put that right. But I did not know any better. She died in my mother’s arms.

My father did not do holding hands or displays of affection. I think he did not receive much of that in his own childhood. It was sad. He died in the way he had feared most. Alone, in hospital, the night before he was due to be discharged home. No touch to see him off.

When we are lonely with no other human being close to us, pets can play an important role in our lives. They can become companions and providers of unconditional love, enduring our hugs and sometimes kisses. This is recognised with the introduction of therapy dogs and other pets visiting hospitals, care homes and hospices.

3. The energy of the human touch

Holding hands is one of those gestures that speaks louder than words.

When I went through my first cancer treatment, which included grueling intravenous chemotherapy, I once became very sick – 30 minutes after a good friend had left. I had to call them back. I did not know what was happening to me. It was all very frightening. Bucket holding was the nearest we came to hand-holding, and that’s all I needed then.

Someone holding a bucket for you to vomit when you are distressed – I rate that highly!

The chemo nights, when I felt my body and brain were exploding, and the one night when I had a massive anxiety attack, they will never be forgotten. But I had Lilly, my dog. And it was a comfort.

Receiving and enjoying such basic yet such a fundamental and exquisite sign of affection like holding hands is special, healing and nourishing. @KarinSieger (Click to Tweet!)

With it – we and our lives are enriched. Without it – we and our lives are impoverished.

4. Holding hands and relationships

I don’t know which is worse: no-one to hold hands with you because

  • you are not in a relationship;
  • you have another, but they don’t like holding hands;
  • the other is the last person on earth you would like to hold hands with.

How many of us go through a crisis and the person on our side could not care less, is unsupportive, even abusive, possibly a danger to us? 

These days I don’t see many young people holding hands. When I was a teenager in the late 70s holding hands was special, something we (at least the girls) dreamt of. It was romantic, more than being kissed. It was a sign of belonging. Is it different these days? Perhaps it is, or perhaps I live in the wrong neighbourhood.

On the rare occasions I see old/er couples hold hands, I feel a lump in my throat.

If we don’t have this source of affection in our lives, then it is important to be aware that we need to take extra care of ourselves.

But let’s not forget. Even if we do not receive, we have two of our own hands to give and to hold someone else’s, who is in need of comfort.

5. Holding hands at the end of our lives

Depending on your life experiences you may be more or less in touch with your mortality. I know I am and it makes me think ahead. If we could arrange it, who would we like to be there for us (or not) when we die? Who to hold our hand then?

And you may not know it, perhaps someone else is wondering whether you might be that special person for them, when their time comes.

When one of my friends died, she was paralysed after breast cancer had spread to her bones and a tumour had developed on her spine. We held her hands, massaged and pressed her hands, moisturised them and cut her nails. Sometimes I wonder what she made of it. Perhaps we did it for ourselves.

Wanting to be close and keeping up the most basic of human rituals – touch.

6. Holding your own hand

Yet, many of us may now or then or in the future have no-one to hold our hands. We need to be prepared for that. It can be hard and yes, it is sad, and may be quite a waste. Because, you yourself, may be a really good hand holder to someone else out there.

This is why it is essential that we find meaning and solace elsewhere in our lives – activities, beliefs, life-styles – anything that nourishes us and that we enjoy, however small.

I found this quote on Twitter, which hints at the possibilities we have:

Words that take you by the hand. (@GnosisNeurosis)

This article was first published on KarinSieger.com

Karin Sieger is a psychotherapist and writer. KarinSieger.com is among the Top 10 UK Psychotherapy Blogs. Karin offers free advice via the #DearKarin column on her website. She specialises in personal transitions, loss and grief, making peace and the emotional impact of cancer, for which Karin has been treated herself. She does her writing and recording of her YouTube videos on her orange houseboat in London. You can sign up for her free newsletter, and connect with her on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook or connect via LinkedIn.

Image courtesy of Pavel Jurca.