Touch matters. We’re hardwired for healthy touch. Newborns need it for growth and development; children need loving touch to feel secure; as adults we need it to build bonds and connection. It’s through the language of touch that you first learn about the world as you’re swaddled and held in your mother’s arms.
It helps your brain grow; it helps you heal and learn how to become a citizen of humanity. Touch validates life. It’s essential to our mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. Research shows that touch improves mood, decreases stress, reduces pain, and boosts the immune system.
But with our 24-hour plugged-in society and the ongoing pandemic, we’re experiencing touch deprivation more frequently.
Our skin is our body’s largest organ. With millions of nerve endings it’s akin to an “external nervous system.” When a stimulus hits the skin, messages are sent to the brain, which regulate the body. So the type of skin stimulation we receive determines how we feel. For example, if we touch hot coffee, we feel pain; if we receive a soft caress on the forehead, we feel calm.
Studies show a single massage session changes your biochemistry. The strokes of massage provide 10 times as much oxygen to the specific area of the body, which leads to an increase in circulation and helps to maintain and repair muscles and tissues.
Tiffany Field, PhD, who has been studying the effects touch for 40 years, is director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. She says the positive effects of touch stem from moving the skin. “When you move the skin you activate pressure receptors (specialized nerve endings), so you want to stimulate the skin through massage, self-touch, some type of physical movement, or exercise,” she says. This calms the nervous system, lowers heart rate, reduces cortisol (a stress hormone), and increases theta brainwaves associated with relaxation. When you reduce stress hormones, you’re also increasing immune cells which stave off bacteria and viruses.
Field suggests these four ways to incorporate more touch into your day and ward off touch deprivation:
- Yoga. “Yoga is a form of self-massage,” she explains, because your limbs are pressing into the floor, which triggers pressure receptors and sends messages to the brain. The beneficial outcome is similar getting a massage.
- Fast walking.
“Fast walking hits pressure receptors on the feet,” says Field. “Just walking around barefoot on the floor arouses the skin.” Walking barefoot heel, ball, toe on the ground, or swinging your legs up and down while sitting in a chair also energizes skin receptors.
- Self-massage. Massage your feet and toes with moderate pressure to encourage blood flow and circulation, this carries nutrients to the area. With long up-and-down strokes, caress your arms and legs (coconut oil or sesame oil can be used as a moisturizer). Gently massage the palms of your hands, which hits trigger points on your palms. Or position a tennis ball between your lower back and the wall and roll up and down against the ball—this is comparable to a back massage.
- Exercise. “Simply being in motion helps you feel better,” says Field. “Exercise is a buffer, just like spirituality and meditation are buffers,” she adds.
Any kind of exercise invigorates the skin and spurs pressure receptors. You can lie on the floor and do crunches or sit-ups, or roll on your side and do leg lifts. Stretch, hike, bike—find your form of staying active.
Field recommends a “daily dose of touch” to help strengthen the immune system. Just 15-20 minutes can elevate mood. Whether it’s lathering up with lotion, doing sit-ups, or walking outside—if you’re less stressed, you heal faster. Your body innately knows how to heal. But sometimes it just needs a boost of touch.
Want to know more? Read: “How Pets Alleviate Touch Deprivation.”