“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
We calm our pets by stroking them, we greet each other with a hug or a handshake, and we soothe our children by holding them. No other form of connection is as powerful and universal as touch.
A pat on the back, a caress of the arm—these are everyday, incidental gestures that we usually take for granted but cutting edge research into everyday forms of touch has documented incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch.
From this frontier of touch research, studies by neuroscientist Edmund Rolls shows that touch activates the brain’s cortex which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion. It signals safety and trust.
Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response, and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka “the love hormone.”
“Touch therapy” or “massage therapy” has got hard science on its side. It’s not just good for our muscles; it’s good for our entire physical and mental health. Stroking the skin activates nerves that calm down the body’s stress response and stimulate the brain’s happy hormones. The more you’re stroked, the more your blood pressure is reduced, pain vanishes and pleasure takes its place.
Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School, points out that massage can reduce inflammation which may be involved in pain and actually enhance cell recovery.
What I find interesting and more expansive is the wonderful tool that massage gives us for everyday life. Massage techniques can be taught so people with families can learn to massage each other, parents can massage kids, couples can massage each other, so flooding their bodies with anti-stress hormones that are beneficial for better health and wellbeing.
There are plenty of ways you can put touch to work for your good health. Massage therapy, for instance, may make you more alert and lessen symptoms of depression such as fatigue and irritability. The healing power of touch extends across our life span, from helping babies grow and children concentrate at school to decreasing chronic illnesses and disease.
Bodywork and relaxation go together, an hour-long bodywork session… even one focused on pain relief or structural alignment can create a sense of well-being, calm, and energy. But why do we as human beings crave the touch of another?
Whether in giving or receiving, touch is as essential to human survival as is food. Infants deprived of touch, even when they are getting adequate nutrition, will fail to thrive. Elders isolated by loss of partners and friends become depressed not only because of the absence of social interaction, but also because of the simple loss of being touched.
Touch is the only one of our five senses that doesn’t lose its potency with age. As we grow old, our need to touch and be touched becomes greater. But we don’t need any external aids to get joy from our sense of touch. It doesn’t diminish.
We forget that touch is not only basic to our species, but the key to it. In the absence of touching and being touched, people of all ages can sicken and grow touch-starved.
And as we age, we need more assurance that we are loved. If the restrictions of our culture frown on touching, holding hands, hugging and kissing, we have to ignore them. We have to learn to give each other joy through touch, the most important of our senses.
Annie Moore MCThA, ITHMA, massage therapist and owner at Vidatherapy Spa