Have you ever noticed how often you touch your forehead, play with your hair, place your chin into your palms, or rub your hands? These actions are not just random, your nervous system requires them. With regards to other people, touch is 10x stronger than any verbal or emotional cues, and is considered the most powerful way of establishing human relationships. A touch on your forearm as short as a 40th of a second makes you feel better, and makes the giver and environment appear kinder and friendlier, but why is this the case?
Touch is the first sensory system that develops in animals, and in a human embryo, it develops in as little as 6-8 weeks. The need for touch is hardwired into our nervous system as it stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone related to love, social bonding, and well-being. Without it, we can develop psychological issues such as depression and aggression, and physical issues such as stunted growth, a phenomenon observed in Romanian orphans who grew up in the 1960s-1980s with a lack of caregivers.
We know that normal touch is processed by the reward system in the brain, but we can also learn that guided and purposeful touch such as that related to massage or osteopathy increases serotonin and white blood cell levels while regulating dopamine release. These changes lead to better memory, increased capacity for learning, boosted happiness, and anti-depressant effects. Manual therapists are often described with respect to their ‘Healing Touch’, a term you can now recognize as more than just an expression.
The best part of all of this information is that it is not just limited to receiving touch. Both the giver and receiver exhibit benefits so long as pressure receptors on the skin are activated. Parents who massage their children daily increase the child’s immune system function while simultaneously reducing frequency of their own depressive symptoms.
With all the uncertainty and stress surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, you may be asking yourself how you can use this information, especially since forms of touch like the handshake and hug are becoming less common. Within your immediate households, try to incorporate more positive touch, especially now during this pandemic. It might just make it easier to navigate through this pandemic and make the world a happier place to be.
Austin Lebar, DOMP