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Healing Through Touch
I was paying the bills and trying to figure out how to get my daughter to ballet and still make my late meeting. Stress was leaking into the gaps between my thoughts.
I leaned forward, put my head in my hands, and my husband reached over and gently laid his hand across my back. It wasn’t a massage, nor was there anything romantic about the gesture. He just reached out and touched me. Right away I felt my body relax. I felt better, less stressed and more focused.
Scores of studies indicate that massage and other comforting touches aid in healing the body. But now evidence is mounting that even simple gestures like a pat on the back, a high five or a handshake can reduce stress, promote a sense of connection and belonging and inspire others to perform better.
In one study led by Tiffany Field, Ph.D., the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, students who received a pat on the back from a teacher were twice as likely to volunteer in class than those who did not.
Berkeley researcher Michael Kraus, a Ph.D. candidate, looked at the power of touch when he studied NBA players and teams. The teams that recorded the most physical contact — hand slaps and back pats — also tended to win the most, he found. But most importantly, Kraus says the winning-team players also supported each other through positive physical contact, even when a player turned the ball over or other mistakes were made. That kind of cohesiveness, communicated through touch, contributed to the teams’ success, he says.
“Touch is important to fostering that group bond,” Kraus says. “It’s team building.”
Why touch matters
Field explains that the power of touch is rooted in both the body’s physical and emotional response. When the body is touched, pressure receptors below the skin are stimulated, causing an increase of activity in the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem through the abdomen. An increase in vagal activity causes the body to relax. The heart slows, stress hormones are reduced and serotonin, the neurotransmitter thought to help regulate moods and emotions, increases and we feel better, Field says. Even our immune system is boosted.
Yet, because of well-publicized cases of inappropriate physical contact, our society is becoming less connected physically. We are wary about touching each other, even in the appropriate ways. But, touch is a primal need for humans and most animals. Without it we set up a host of cultural, physical and emotional problems, Field says.
For example, a lack of positive physical contact causes more aggressive behavior among people. It’s no surprise, then, that as physical contact has been curtailed in the schools and elsewhere, cases of childhood aggression and violence are on the rise, Field says. Children also fail to thrive and develop intellectually and emotionally without healthy physical contact.
Touch is also an essential ingredient for success at the highest level. Physical contact prompts contribution, connection, trust and productivity, and can even help build compassion for others and ourselves.
The bottom line is that everybody can benefit from the right kind of physical contact.
Building touch into your life
As adults, few of us are touched as often as we need or would like to be. While everyone is different, most of us could benefit from a minimum 15-minute back rub every day, a gentle massage, a foot rub or a hug. More time for touch would be even better, Field says.
But it’s important to let others know what kind of touch feels good and to be clear about what you’re comfortable with. Also, be sure to respect the boundaries of others. Some touches can be so hard that they hurt or so soft that they tickle or arouse, Field says.
Those that feel good — like the light pat on the back my husband gave, a foot rub or even a good handshake — do boost our well-being.
There are plenty of ways to comfortably stimulate that vagus nerve and incorporate touch-inspired benefits into your life, even if you live alone or you’re not too comfortable with physical contact.
Here are some ways to do it:
- Get a massage. Schedule a session with a professional massage therapist or learn some self-massage tips — even rubbing a tennis ball along your arms and legs to stimulate the vagus nerve offers the benefits of touch.
- Exercise often. Take up running or yoga. Vigorous walking can also do the trick. The firm contact of your feet to the ground or the contact of your limbs in yoga can also stimulate the vagus nerve, lower the body’s stress response and promote the release of serotonin just like a massage would.
- Trade back rubs. Firm pressure applied to the back is a quick and comfortable way to reap the benefits of touch. Offer to give your partner a back rub every night before bed if he’ll return the favor. Or teach your kids how to do this for you and then offer them a back rub in return when you tuck them in at night.
- Find comfortable ways to make contact. Every time you meet and greet someone, find a comfortable way to connect with him or her through touch. Offer a firm handshake, a pat on the back, or in some cases, a hug might be appropriate.