The Power of Touch
Written by Matt Taylor International Lead Educator for Eve Taylor London UK
There are many occasions when we feel disconnected and in desperate need of comfort, yet something as simple as a hug can engulf us with reassurance and feelings of warmth.
At the times when we experience low mood, anxiety, loneliness and depression, the stress hormone cortisol, naturally secreted from the adrenal glands and used as part of the flight or fight mechanism is being produced in elevated quantities, increasing blood pressure and leading to those twitchy, irritable, upset feelings.
When we are touched in a non-threatening, nurturing, favourable way, through hugging or other tactile contact, our sensory nerve endings are stimulated and register messages in the brain through the central nervous system leading to a torrent of hormones and ‘feel good’ chemicals such as endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin being released throughout our body bringing about a multitude of benefits.
Endorphins enhance the immune system, relieve pain and reduce stress; dopamine induces pleasure and serenity; serotonin reduces depressive and aggressive feelings by promoting a sense of wellbeing, whilst oxytocin known as the ‘connection hormone’ promotes a warm fuzzy feeling of contentment. Whilst each of these hormones offers necessary benefits to the body, oxytocin produces profound effects up and beyond the others.
Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus section of the brain and transferred to the pituitary gland where it is released into the blood stream. The hormone is regarded as the archenemy of cortisol directly opposing its counterpart by neutralising its negative effects. Just like a seesaw, when one side goes up the other has no choice but to go down. Blood pressure is reduced, stress responses are lowered, anxiety is improved but most of all a feeling of trust and connection is created.
Human beings crave touch from birth; it is a need and essential for healthy development with oxytocin playing an important role in this process. Sir Henry Dale discovered in 1906 that oxytocin was produced in abundance by the body during and following childbirth, he devised the name for this hormone from the Greek words: oksys – meaning ‘swift’ and tokos - meaning birth, essentially a meaning of ‘swift birth’.
When mothers breast feed their babies, oxytocin release is stimulated which in turn stimulates further milk secretion and a further desire to be with the baby, it is well documented that breast-fed babies have a stronger emotional bond with their mother through this tactile contact.
Touch is essential for babies within their initial development stage, it is the first of the five senses to develop and is essential for their physical and emotion health. We see babies naturally grasp their mother’s finger, this form of connection has not been taught but the instinctive need for nurturing contact is written within our DNA. We are hard-wired for touch.
In the late 1800’s babies raised in orphanages and institutions had high mortality rates due to being separated from their mothers, isolated in cribs and rarely picked up, these infants experienced acute stress in addition to illness and disease, with cause of death put down as ‘failure to thrive’. Orphaned infants who are held less lovingly to those with a mother are shown to have higher levels of cortisol and lower levels of oxytocin.
Recent studies discovered adolescents who spend less time touching or hugging their peers displayed higher levels of aggressive verbal and physical behaviour than their more tactile counterparts. When adolescents with anger management issues were provided with body massage treatments, they showed increased empathy and decreased levels of violent behaviour. While this may be attributed to an increase of serotonin levels as well as oxytocin, it still demonstrates how powerful touch can be.
Throughout our lives touch plays a fundamental role in social bonding and interaction, the non-verbal form of communication can convey feelings of anger, compassion, fear, gratitude and happiness within seconds. On a daily basis we shake hands with colleagues, we hug our friends, we cuddle our loved ones.
Even when physical contact isn’t taking place, tactile references are ingrained into the fabric of our language; we ask people ‘how they are feeling’ and to ‘keep in touch’, we offer guests a ‘warm welcome’ and ‘make them feel at home’, we may refer to someone as a ‘smooth talker’ or ‘sharp tongued’. Touch is so fundamental to our existence that it finds a way to be integrated into our lives anywhere it can.
Whilst females stereotypically boast a tactile nature, males are known for limiting physical contact with each other, we all know that guy who is a real ‘man’s man’ and would be horrified at the thought of hugging another male; but let’s look at interaction between men, touch still trickles through by means of handshakes, fist pumps or a heavy pat on the back which are perceived as acceptable methods of contact and physical acknowledgement between one another. It is interesting though to observe men watching sports games such as football matches, when a player scores a goal the engulfing euphoria propels these normally tactile-reserved men into overdrive with free-flowing hugs in abundance.
Physical contact within our intimate relationships is key to longevity; relationships are longer lasting and more secure when we touch the ones we love, acknowledging their presence and reinforcing our desire for them through this form of non-verbal communication, we feel much more connected to our partners when they touch us in return giving us a feeling of relationship satisfaction; this is the reason why some of the most successful relationships touch so often. Whilst we must acknowledge that sexual contact also plays an important role within our relationships, the benefits of tactile contact between partners greatly outweigh those of sexual intimacy etc.
There is also widespread recognition of the importance of touch within end of life care; this is not only for physical care needs but more so for communicating, comforting and reinforcing presence to the person in their last days. Those who are in the final stages of their life battling terminal illness may have loss of sight and hearing, whilst their remaining senses become acutely sensitive and so the way we communicate with them must adapt. The one way which we can connect is through nurturing touch, the gentle holding of their hand, the compassionate stroking of their head, that contact which allows them to know that that they are not alone and someone who cares is present with them.
If touch is so important and beneficial why aren’t we doing it more? In today’s technological age of the Internet we are becoming more ‘connected’ than ever. We can video chat with family anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat, we can discuss our favourite television series with strangers through social media, we can dual in battle with friends through our online games consoles, but this all comes at a heavy cost, whilst we obscure ourselves behind our phone screens we are experiencing the decline of tactile interaction and a sharp increase of social anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, these are not unconnected. We are becoming increasingly touch deprived.
Even the most tactile of us are beginning to shy away from physical contact with strangers, friends and colleagues, as we fear that we are invading personal space, are portraying the wrong kind of message or may cross the line between appropriate/inappropriate conduct. As a result, we are becoming increasingly touch deprived.
As therapists we are in the key position to help our client’s wellbeing by providing them with the touch they crave. Whether a beauty therapist, massage therapist or nail technician, we all get to touch our client’s bare skin without fear of repercussions, our industry is one of the only industries which touch is absolutely acceptable and welcomed.
Consider your own client base, think about the range of clients you treat on a regular basis, consider their motives for visiting you. That seemingly confident twenty something may be battling severe social anxiety and body image issues fuelled by a negative relationship with her partner, that elderly client may be experiencing severe loneliness after losing her husband with you being one of the only people she will interact with all week, that working mum is feeling absolute despair, working every hour she can for her family yet receiving no caring physical contact in return.
Whilst many of our clients request their treatment just for the noticeable effects, a proportion of our clients visit us simply for our touch; they trust us, they feel safe with us and our touch within the duration of their treatment time fundamentally impacts them in more ways than we can ever realise.
Next time a client visits for their appointment, challenge yourself to consider the motives for their visit, consider your own sincerity and the intention you are performing the treatment with, do it with meaning, don’t rush through the facial massage, don’t skimp on the amount of hand on skin time in a body treatment and most of all, never underestimate the power we hold quite literally in our hands.