For more than two years, we lived in a world of social and physical restrictions. Wearing a mask, staying away from others, avoiding hugs and kisses… The pandemic has turned our lives upside down, to such an extent that we have lost sensory and human contact. Even today, the handshakes have been replaced by the “hug” of the feet. The kiss has almost been banned to make way for the “check” of the elbow. In his work The strength of the caress, taking care of the most fragile with the heart, Dr Véronique Lefebvre des Noëttes, psychiatrist and geriatrician for thirty-five years, invites us to abandon the social distancing imposed by Covid-19 to rehabilitate the caress. Simple, gentle, free, this ancestral gesture is enough to soothe the tensions and anxieties of the most fragile. In a story full of humanity, Dr Véronique Lefebvre des Noëttes explains to us the importance of putting the caress back at the heart of care, and particularly with the elderly.
In your work, we learn that touch is a sense rooted in us. And this, since always…
Yes, Man has been endowed with a formidable tool: the hand. The latter can also polish, search, squeeze, hold, slap or… caress. Touch is the first natural body language that exists even before we are born. From 24 weeks of life, the fetus is sensitive to caresses. Once the child comes into the world, they are vital for him. Indeed, he cannot live in a balanced way if he is not touched and hugged. And even when we reach adulthood, we need this gesture of affection to strengthen the bond with loved ones: from the beginning of life to the end of it.
What are the effects of a caress on the brain?
When you give a caress – or when you receive one – the brain is flooded with oxytocin, the love hormone, but also dopamine, the pleasure hormone. This gesture of affection lowers blood pressure, the pulse becomes slower and stress decreases. It also causes a drop in the stress hormone cortisol. You experience immediate relief. A caress is also an emotional detector of fear, desire or sadness… The brain allows us to connect to people with touch.
During the pandemic, physical contact was completely forgotten. What impact on our mental health?
With this virus, everyone has become a potential contaminator and a possible invisible enemy. Today, morale is flagging, with its share of sick leave, burn-out, resignations and retraining… Our elderly people have sunk into depression. We cannot live for long in a state of tension, hypervigilance and chronic stress. We need to reconnect. Because reinscribing the other in an exchange by touching them is to reaffirm the human bond.
Why is it so complicated to establish the caress as care in the medical environment?
Because it can have two inclinations: one is friendship and gentleness, the other is desire and sexuality. Talking about caresses in the hospital environment may seem taboo or even obscene. However, I advocate the empathetic caress, the one that is part of the care.
In a concrete way, what forms can this gesture take?
This is not the palpate-rolling or the massage offered by the physiotherapist. Here, I’m talking about a caress that restores a vital impetus. It can be a hand touching a feverish patient’s forehead or brushing the palm of an Alzheimer’s patient’s cheek. During a blood test, instead of tapping to reveal the veins, you can practice sliding, enveloping gestures, with both hands, on the patient’s forearm. This will have the same effect on the veins and will bring confidence to the patient who will let himself be done without apprehension. Far from being sentimental, the caress is a wonderful care tool.
How to put the caress back at the center of our lives?
The person giving this gesture of affection must already feel at ease. The caress is very subtle, it is proposed and not imposed. Remember that the caress is part of us. It remains innate in the mother who takes care of her baby and it reappears when we want to take care of a vulnerable loved one. We must dare to caress in everyday life with the people who are close to us. The hand of the other, when it is offered, given, accepted, makes us better.
Véronique Lefebvre des Noëttes is the author of The strength of the caress. Take care of the most fragile with the heart, edition of the Rock, 17.90 euros.