Do you remember when you were little and a kiss from mom could instantly heal any pain caused by an injury? Scientists have discovered that this and other methods of touch actually do help to increase healing and pain tolerance in addition to other emotional benefits. Touch is the first of our five senses to develop. We are wired to want and need touch. Just think about a newborn baby; instinctively they will grasp a finger or attempt to snuggle into you. This is not a trait that has been taught to them. How could it be? The truth is that humans are meant to touch in order to build a connection whether it be romantic, paternal, or plutonic. Touch helps us form emotional connections to others.
Touch is important early on in life for so many reasons. In the past 15 years, multiple studies have shown that babies who are held in skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth show more stable breathing and body temperature. They also tend to develop a stronger immune system and cry less often than newborns who are separated from their mothers after birth. Mothers who hold their baby are also showing benefits such as more confidence when caring for their infant. Both mother and baby display lower levels of stress as well. Research has also shown that infants who receive loving touch are more capable of self-regulating their emotions as they age than those infants who are deprived of sensory stimulation. This is why even parents of premature infants are encouraged to have regular contact through incubators. Premature infants who received regular touch are shown to gain more weight and have increased bone density which lead to shorter hospital stays.
There have been mountains of research done at universities all over the world to prove that touch is healing. Dr Jim Coan, a neuroscientist at Virginia University, scanned the brains of a group of married women that had been subjected to pain. His results showed that when these women were allowed to hold the hand of their spouse, there was an immediate drop in activity in the areas of the brain that express fear, danger, and threat. These women were calmer and less stressed than other test subjects. Brain scans have shown that welcome, consensual touch releases endorphins in the brain that combat stress hormones which results in a sense of relaxation and peace. The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine has carried out over 100 different studies which show that touch can also boost the immune system, lower symptoms of asthma, reduce blood pressure, relieve migraines, lower glucose levels, and halt or slow the progression of diseases such as cancer. A study in Sweden showed that 8 out of 10 people who suffer from fibromyalgia benefited from touch therapy.
Researchers at Ohio State University found a link between psychological stress and the slowing down of the wound healing process. Subjects who were under stress were found to have lower levels of cytokines, a key element in your immune system, being delivered to the site of an injury. They also found that in participants that had been in an argument with a loved one, the healing process took 24 hours longer and in subjects who had marital problems, the wounds were 60 percent slower to heal taking up to two days longer than someone in a healthy relationship.
A study in Indiana found that people are able to interpret the meaning behind touch as well. Dr Matthew Hertenstein conducted a study in which he instructed a person to attempt to convey a certain emotion to a stranger through touch. His findings show that, through touch alone, people can communicate several distinct emotions to one another. He found that emotions like anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy are displayed 48 percent more accurately through touch than they are from reading facial expressions and a whopping 83 percent more accurately than vocal intonation.
An explanation as to why emotion can be felt so effectively through touch can be answered by Dr David J Linden from Johns Hopkins University. Linden explains that there are separate touch receptors in the body for texture, vibration, pressure, and itch. Dr. Håkan Olausson, professor of clinical neuroscience at Linköping University in Sweden is one of the leading touch researchers in the world. As part of a team of researchers, he helped discover special touch fibers called C-tactile afferent fibers. These fibers are in charge of registering and transmitting the emotional meaning of touch to the brain. These fibers respond optimally at around 89 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature of a human hand. Dr Olausson explains that these receptors are especially sensitive to caresses but also respond to several other types of touch such as pressure. When the C-tactile fibers aren’t working properly, a gentle touch can feel aversive and may undermine attempts to form emotional connections. Normal C-tactile stimulation, when delivered through a nurturing touch, impacts the neural networks in our brains allowing us to see ourselves as separate from others with needs that are different. Without this ability, one may be unable to read emotional cues which could make it difficult to experience empathy. These receptors could be the key to understanding why children on the autism spectrum are so opposed to light touch. While most of us with regularly functioning C-tactile fibers see a gentle caress as soothing, a person on the autism spectrum is more likely to find it unpleasant.
Romantic relationships often start out with extensive physical contact which tends to lead to a deeper connection and lasting relationship, but sometimes couples drift apart and the desire for physical touch fades. Relationship therapists often recommend touching your partner more in order to strengthen your romantic bond. “Touching is a key factor to a lasting relationship. To touch someone you love is to acknowledge their presence and to communicate your desire for them” say research doctors Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz, a married couple specializing in relationship studies. Affectionate touch can not only promote feelings of bonding and attachment, but it can contribute to overall health and well-being in long term relationships. When we touch or are being touched by those we are close to, our brain releases serotonin which is a mood booster. This explains why a simple touch from a loved one can help us feel less stressed and more relaxed. Studies have even found that when you hold hands with a romantic partner, your heartbeats and breathing synchronize.
Touch does not always have to be romantic in order for you to benefit. Massage has been shown to increase athletic recovery, reduce stress, strengthen the immune system, and lower symptoms of depression and anxiety. A 2007 study from the University of South Carolina found that adults age 60 and older who received two massage therapy session per week experienced lower levels of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain. There is a current study being conducted on the effects of massage therapy in men suffering from prostate cancer and women with ovarian cancer. Researchers are hoping to prove that massage, especially reiki, can slow the progression of these diseases. There is even a charity in London that offers free massage to hospice patients and their loved ones in order to help with grief and stress levels.
It is also possible to suffer from a lack of touch. Dr Tiffany Field from the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami has coined a phenomenon called “touch hunger.” When we experience a lack of physical contact, our fundamental human needs are left unmet. This is particularly true when it comes to relationships and our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. This is why it is so important to show affection through touch. We simply cannot stay mentally fit without touch from others.
The bottom line is that touch has the power to heal and calm us; especially when it is received from someone we have a deep, emotional connection with. Consensual touch that is given with positive intent such as that you would receive from a massage or a heartfelt hug has the power to heal both body and mind. Want to be happier, healthier, and less stressed? Hug your children, kiss your partner, cuddle your baby; touch is therapeutic even if it isn’t from a licensed massage therapist.