Less Stress, More Love? It’s All In The Touch

by Anne O'Connor

A key strategy to staying healthy during the Coronavirus pandemic—keeping six feet apart from one another—can also have an unintended side effect: limiting the healing properties of touch.

“Touch has significant effects on health and well-being,” said Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute, in an email interview. “Touching, as in hugging and back rubbing, stimulates pressure receptors under the skin that in turn increase vagal activity—the vagus being the largest cranial nerve. This touching slows the nervous system by, for example, decreasing the heart rate and the production of stress hormones.”

Field said she hopes that people who are isolating together get more touch, now that many people are together more. And if someone is alone, she said there’s plenty that person can do to create the benefits in their bodies as well.  

Field is the founder of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. Her ground-breaking work with premature infants more than 30 years ago showed that babies who were massaged just 15 minutes a day grew and developed better. Since then, her research and other universities’ research around touch has exploded.

We may know intuitively that touch is one of the most powerful ways to demonstrate affection, warmth, compassion and love. But there’s so much more going on at the systems level in our bodies.  

For example, touch decreases the primary stress hormone cortisol. It’s likely that we could all use a little less cortisol about now. When we slow the production of cortisol, Field said, we save our “natural killer cells” that ward off viral, bacterial and cancer cells. Big stuff. This helps keep our immune systems strong.

Research also shows that massage therapy can also help with everything from diminishing pain to increasing pulmonary function in asthma.

The science showing the benefits of touch is wide and deep. In addition to lessening the stress hormones, touch actually goes one better by releasing the “feel good” hormone oxytocin.

A professional massage therapist might not be an option during the pandemic. But we can still get these benefits from touch. If we’re with others and naturally physical together, great: it’s working! Keep doing that and maybe step it up while you have the chance.

One thing to remember is that, despite all its benefits, if someone doesn’t want to be touched, the benefits aren’t going to be the same. So ask what feels good. Consent about touch is a great conversation to have.

Field says that research shows that couples who hug each other have better immune systems. And families hugging and massaging and even roughhousing get the benefits too. But we can get the benefits by ourselves, too. Any activity that moves the skin will prompt the benefits in our bodies.

Dr. Field says any of these will work:

  • Brushing the body with a washcloth, brush or a loofa in the shower.
  • Or rubbing on lotion afterwards.
  • Stretching, exercising or even walking around the room.
  • Doing yoga.
  • Rubbing the skin—a neck and face massage followed by a scalp massage.
  • Use a ball or a spoon rolling the back, thighs, and arms and legs
  • Giving yourself a hug---rub your arms
  • Rubbing the muscles all over your body

The more touch we can get, the better. So go on and stimulate those pressure receptors under the skin and make social isolation a lot less, well, isolating. Touch is one easy way to feel the love.

 

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