Healing by Touch
In a world where a large part of our interactions are becoming virtual, it's easy to 'lose touch' with out fellow humans. Despite the psychological consequences of this distance, we also, especially in the U.S., are suffering decreased physical health due to decreased touch.
Modern researchers are pushing us to get some form of touch every day. "We are a touch-deprived society," says Dr. Tiffany Field of University of Miami's Touch Research Institute . "It's important to get a daily dose of touch."
So, how can we heal our bodies and souls through touch?
The Science of Touch
Skin is our body's largest organ, and when its sensory receptors are stimulated, the feel-good hormone oxytocin is released, and the stress hormone, cortisol, is reduced.
Physical Benefits of Touch
It is commonly acknowledged that a decrease in stress hormones leads to overall improved health (see: How Stress Affects the Immune System), and that touch leads to reduced stress. Various research studies found that, when touched:
- The heart slows, food in the gastrointestinal tract is more readily absorbed, and serotonin is released into the bloodstream, resulting in a decrease pain and heightened alertness.
- Infants given 15 minutes of stimulation (voice, massage, and eye contact) twice a day, 5 days a week, for 4 weeks, gained more weight, grew longer, had increased head circumferences, and caught fewer illnesses, compared to babies who did not receive the extra stimulation.
- People of all ages report improved physical functioning, pain relief, an increased ability to cope with chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia, and better general health ratings.
- Nursing home residents suffering from dementia (like Alzheimer’s Disease) responded better to therapeutic touch than some medications.
- The body's natural killer cells are better equipped to fight off bacterial infections and even more serious threats.
Mental Benefits of Touch
In one study, researchers had students do a difficult math problem, then had them do it again after receiving a chair massage. After the massage, the students solved problems more quickly and more accurately, probably due to lower stress levels.
Even athletes who frequently touch with simple high fives and pats perform better in their sport than those who avoid physical contact.
Touch Improves Relationships
I know in my case, I stayed way too long with my emotionally abusive husband because he happened to give the best foot rubs ever. He has ADHD, so was content to be doing several things at once including rubbing my feet. I felt a distinct sense of withdrawal that lasted about two months when I finally left him. It was worse than quitting sugar or caffeine.
So, too, in healthy relationships, touch improves the bond between couples, parents and babies, and friends.
One researcher noted that one of the key places we can use touch is in our families, yet a lot of fathers are reluctant to hug their sons for fear of how they will be perceived. However, touch may mean more to men than they care to admit: A 2011 study revealed that for men between the ages of 40 and 70, more important than sex, the more men hugged and kissed their partner, the happier they considered their relationships.
It has also been found that after a brief episode of warm contact, the perception of greater partner support was correlated with higher oxytocin levels and lower norepinephrine levels, resulting in lowered blood pressure.
How to Incorporate More Touch in Your Life
Being a single person with few appropriate opportunities for touch, I've become a hugger. Whenever my extended family members get together or I meet with a friend, I take full advantage. It's as simple as, "It's so good to see you!" Insert big hug.
Other opportunities for touch:
- Massage therapy: More and more insurance companies are realizing the cost benefit of the healing touch, many times reducing the need for pain or anxiety medication.
- Pets: Pet owners have reported reduced depression, less stress, improved exercise habits, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and reduced feelings of loneliness
- Shampoo at a salon
- A church that believes in healing through 'laying on of hands'
- Shake hands of new people you meet
In addition, a single person's need for touch can be satisfied in these ways:
- Massage your own arms, legs, hands.
- Use a brush or loofah in the shower.
- Lean against a wall with a tennis ball between your shoulder blades and slowly roll it up and down your back.
- Exercise can serve as massage.
- Try self-soothing techniques, like cradling your own face or lovingly stroking your cheek.
Tactile satisfaction can also be found by stimulation such as:
- holding a warm mug of tea, coffee, or soup
- donning a warm bathrobe
One of the nation’s largest teaching hospitals is conducting research studies on the potential benefits of Healing Touch for cancer patients.
Michelangelo got it right when he said, "To touch can be to give life."