The Power of Touch
Why harnessing this lost sense is good for our health
By Kim Watson, Massage Therapist at The House of Palms
We are living in an increasingly touch-deprived society: our elders sit at home for days with little contact, children are pacified with an ipad, and life gets too busy to text a mate a ❤️, never mind giving them a squeeze in real life.
There’s masses of research around the benefits of skin-to-skin contact: it improves our mental wellbeing, can fend off illness, reduces social isolation, and positively impacts the development of children. That’s not to say we should all join a cuddle party (although, hey, why not?) or start doing Banzai-style super long handshakes; but to recognise that touch, including touching ourselves, can serve us in so many ways.
What’s the science?
Our skin is primed with sensors which pick up sensations on the skin and send it through the spinal cord and up to the brain. Hotshot American Neuroscientist, Dr Paul Zak, determined that the brain produces oxytocin during skin-to-skin contact, such as breast-feeding, hugs, holding hands, dancing, massage, and prayer. Oxytocin provides us with that sense of connectedness to others and promotes feel-good sensations that foster a sense of wellbeing and happiness.
Dr Zak “prescribes” at least eight hugs per day and says that, after only 20 seconds of hugging someone, you achieve a huge spike in oxytocin levels, as well as a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels.
At the beginning of the 20th century, in the US and the UK, the death rates among infants placed in orphanages, nurseries, and foundling hospitals were, in some cases, close to 100%, documented in London’s Foundling Museum. In the 1940s, the work of psychoanalyst Rene Spitz further documented high infant death rates and, among the babies who didn’t die, high percentages of cognitive, behavioural and psychological disfunction.
Most of these deaths were not due to starvation or disease, but to severe emotional and sensorial deprivation – in other words, a lack of love. These babies were fed and medically treated, but they were deprived of touch and affection. So, what does this mean for us in the 21st Century? Physical touch, and the biological release that comes with it, is the ultimate mind-body medicine. We’re all on board with probiotics for our gut, crossfit to get our heart rate up, and mindfulness to relax our brain chatter – now, it’s time to make touch the next big thing.
But I don’t have a partner…
There’s more ways to release the feel-good hormones than with romantic partners; including team sports, power walking, yoga, boxing, and other activities that stimulate your pressure points and get your limbs moving against each other. It could also be stroking a dog, hugging your nephew, or going for a massage or other hands-on treatment.
Self-touch also feels good in its own right, as well as helping you to be more relaxed about being tactile with others. Take time to nurture your skin and celebrate your own touch with:
mindful daily facial routines (and why not try one of these gems)
a warm bath with a good ol’ Lush bath bomb - a personal fave,
massaging deep into your scalp while washing your hair,
yes, I’m going to say it, masturbation.
Take time out of your day to massage your body with long, soothing strokes, and explore the different textures and sensations of yourself, whilst using oils, creams, body brushes or simply your hands.
5 Positive Health Manifestations from Touch
As neurobiologist, David Linden, said “The more we learn about touch, the more we realise just how central it is in all aspects of our lives—cognitive, emotional, developmental, behavioural—from womb into old age. It’s no surprise that a single touch can affect us in multiple, powerful, ways.”
Inspires positive thinking and trust
Oxytocin isn’t known as the ‘feel good’ hormone for nothing. It inspires positive thinking and helps you to maintain an optimistic outlook on the world – and, jeez, do we need that. The act of embracing skin-on-skin makes people feel secure and trusting toward each other, and it lowers cortisol levels and reduces stress.
Boosts your immunity
Physical touch is known to improve the function of your immune system as well as reduce diseases such as those associated with the heart and blood. Touch can boost the activity of the cells that seek out and destroy cancer cells or cells that have been invaded by viruses. It speeds recovery times from illness and surgery, aids digestion and boosts survival rates of patients with complex diseases.
In a study by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, people who received a 45-minute massage had an increased number of lymphocytes, the white blood cells that play a large role in defending the body from disease.
Fends off feelings of isolation
We all experience feelings of loneliness at some stage of our life - whether it’s down to our job, being a stay-at-home parent, a millennial, or in our 90th year. As humans, we want to feel love and care. Touching someone close to you can sync your physiological rhythms - the simple act of holding a loved one’s hand may be more powerful than it seems.
A UCL study found that the gentle touch of another individual soothes the effects of social exclusion, one of the most emotionally painful human experiences. Physical touch increases levels of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that help regulate your mood as well as help your body relieve stress and anxiety.
Promotes compassion for others
Touch soothes: it is the language of compassion, helping us bond and connect with other humans. It activates the orbitofrontal cortex in the brain, which is linked to feelings of reward and empathy, making us less cynical or suspicious of others. The role of oxytocin for bonding also extends to helping generate feelings of compassion for society, animals, the environment, and the future.
Reduces pain and enhances life
Studies have shown touch to prevent emotional pain, slow down disease, accelerate wound healing and prolong end of life. Touch and massage can cut levels of stress hormones, which have been implicated in increasing the risk of a number of diseases. Whilst there is no significant evidence to show that touch, such as massage, can cure disease, it can help to lift mood, improve sleep, reduce pain, lower blood pressure and enhance your wellbeing.