One positive in this time of COVID, is the awareness it has brought to how important Touch and contact is for our health and wellbeing.
Our nervous system is an electrical communication system that responds to all types of stimuli. When we experience kindness, love, and empathy, for example, our nervous system perceives safety, which in turn signals to our body that it may rest, digest, and restore when needed. On the other hand, when we experience trauma of any kind, our nervous system is swiftly alerted to respond. At that moment, our sympathetic nervous system kicks off a cascade of physiological effects, including the release of cortisol (our stress hormone), shallow breath, increased heart rate, reduced digestion, and general hypervigilance. We are thrown into a state of survival, literally. All energies go to our limbs and tense muscles to help us fight, flee, or freeze. Unfortunately, it’s there that our bodies can get “stuck.”
Psychologist Peter Levine says humans are the only mammals whose “shake” mechanism does not activate automatically, or at all, following a threat or stress. A common example of the shake mechanism is a dog, who will shake literally from head to tail after a threat to their system has been removed. This shaking releases the inertia of stored energy from the peripheral nervous system, thereby allowing energy and impulses to be rerouted and reintegrated back into our central nervous system. When the trauma or threat is gone, we humans tend to remain in a state of high alert versus “shaking it off” like other mammals.
Without the ability to “shake it off,” trauma survivors are left with an incomplete physiological process that can result in ongoing physiological effects, including muscle tension, disrupted sleep cycles, compromised digestion, and increased heart rate.
While we know there are many ways to approach a nervous system that is being held hostage in sympathetic activation—meditation, talk therapy, somatic awareness, movement, nature, artistic expression, and nourishing food—what’s often forgotten from this list is therapeutic touch
Although receiving massage and bodywork might seem counterintuitive for some trauma survivors, this human contact often works to mend the wounds that can’t be seen. Here are just a few ways massage can help.
Massage and bodywork support the parasympathetic nervous system—the system that allows us to rest, digest, and restore our faculties—by providing stimuli that is intentionally present, caring, and safe. By deactivating the central nervous system, massage and bodywork can bring about increased relaxation, an unraveling of muscle tension, deepened breathing, increased circulation, regulated digestion, calming of the hypothalamus and cortisol, and more.
Touch can be a sensitive subject for someone who has experienced assault of any kind. As a massage therapist, I want my clients to understand that we are in complete partnership and that I absolutely support their processes. The goal of bodywork practitioners is to meet all recipients where they are and work from the needs that arise, versus imposing a one-size-fits-all protocol on clients.
With this in mind, therapists work to educate clients about what a bodywork session should look like and emphasize that, as the recipient, clients are in complete control. On a basic level, we let clients know we will check in with them regarding pressure, temperature, etc., when appropriate. Additionally, we encourage clients to let us know when they need anything at all, be it a new position, a blanket, a bathroom break, a change in music, or lighter pressure. Clients need to understand that they are in charge of their session and have full control over what happens to their body, including how, and how much, they will be touched. After surviving a traumatic experience, receiving safe, interpersonal touch can be an important part of the healing journey.
Survivors of abuse often share that it is challenging for them to trust another person’s touch after experiencing assault and trauma. When survivors cross the threshold into a bodywork space, they are taking a step toward trusting another person to ensure the safe touch that each session intends.
The framework of each massage session is solely to support a client’s healing process. While practitioners may bring the therapeutic techniques to the table, it’s the client who has complete agency over everything that will happen during a session. Whether it is a client’s very first official wellness session or one in a long line of self-care experiences, safe, interpersonal touch can offer a breakthrough and shift survivors toward trusting themselves and others again.
Very often, subordination is a large piece of the puzzle for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse. In order to save their lives, clients might have needed to keep quiet and been unable to speak up during the trauma. What happens when clients ask for their needs to be met in a safe, loving space?
In healing bodywork sessions, clients are the authority of their bodies and their experiences. A bodywork session is a safe platform to reclaim their voice and express their needs. It is in this safe space where silence can be broken.
Finally, it is empowering for survivors to connect the dots between ways in which their bodies and nervous systems might be stuck, versus thinking their bodies are failing them or being unsafe. This shift in perspective made by understanding the body’s physiology and its potentially incomplete response to a past experience can be a huge piece of self-compassion for the body and gratitude for all that it might have endured.
Self-care practices such as massage, stretching, and breath work are vehicles for trauma survivors to connect internally and appreciate the messaging that their bodies might be communicating. These self-care practices offer ways in which clients can listen to, and respond to, their bodies’ needs with love.
Massage and bodywork not only offers innumerable physical benefits for survivors of trauma and abuse, but it also allows survivors a way to reconnect with their bodies and begin to heal the wounds hidden deep within.
For some, experiencing a bodywork session might be their edge—their healthy risk-taking, a reawakening of body memory, and the very first time they are receiving intentional, loving touch solely for their self-care and healing process. Witnessing clients returning to, and reclaiming, their bodies is the utmost honor for me as a massage therapist.
And without it, we're in danger of becoming un-glued. And there's plenty of science to back that up. In the 1950s, the University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow showed that baby rhesus monkeys raised by surrogate mothers preferred one that was made of soft terrycloth but offered no food to one that had food but was made of wire. Touch was more important than food!
And studies a few years ago at Brigham Young University demonstrated that chronic social isolation increases the risk of mortality by almost 30 percent, which will hit hardest those who are already having problems with, say, social anxiety, depression, loneliness, or substance abuse.
On the other (well-washed) hand, touch has been shown to be intimately related to well-being and stress reduction, certainly in its ability to strengthen the immune system, and in the case of shared hugs, in its protective effect against respiratory infections—both of which we could use right about now.
Touch was the first of the senses to come into being at the top of the evolutionary hour, and like the first single-celled creatures, we, too, are surrounded by a membrane—the skin, largest organ in the body—that mediates all our tactile exchanges with the outside world (and keeps the inside world from spilling out). The skin is both a barrier and a bridge, a conveyor of both pain and pleasure, and exquisitely sensitive to touch, every square inch of it endowed with 1,000 nerve endings.
And that touch has salutary effects all along the developmental arc. Premature newborns who receive just three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy a day for five to 10 days gain almost 50 percent more weight than preemies who receive standard medical treatment. Students whose teachers pat them in a friendly (and appropriate) way are three times more likely to speak up in class. NBA basketball teams whose players engage in more celebratory touch—high-fives, chest bumps, pats on the rear-end—win more games and play in a more cooperative fashion than teams that don't. And Alzheimer’s patients who are offered gentle touch are better able to relax, make emotional connections with others, and reduce their depression.
Touch is the first of the five senses to develop in utero and the last to go. “Long after our eyes betray us, our hands remain faithful to the world,” says Frederick Sachs, professor of physiology at the University of Buffalo.
Although any experience of loss, disappointment, or disenchantment comes with a certain payload of grief, in most cases (interpersonally speaking), the pandemic doesn't seem to bring on the kind of shell-shocking grief that attends the sudden loss of love, health or freedom. It's a somewhat slower burn, the dawning realization—as the days of distancing turn into weeks and possibly months—that we may be in for a lengthy siege, and the freedom to socialize at will that we take for granted will literally be kept at arm's length from us, along with many of our loved ones.
A mounting number of scientific studies are providing the biological microscopic view of the etiology of particularly serious human problems. At our current state of scientific investigations there can be no doubt that touch deprivation results in the deterioration of formerly healthy brain tissue which leads to sadly predictable deficits in health, behavior, emotions, and relationships.
Prescott found that societies low in affectionate touch are the most violent on this fragile planet. A paucity of brain nourishing touch causes neurological atrophy and increased violence toward others, property, and self. The most deprived and violent individuals in these societies prey on the weakest and most vulnerable of its members; women and children, in almost all cases inflicting upon their victims "touch trauma" in the forms of physical abuse, sexual manipulation and sexual violence. We know that abuse victims are much more likely to become abusers themselves (Belsky, 1978; Blount & Chandler, 1979). It is less publicized that abuse victims are most likely to abuse themselves and struggle throughout their lives with anger, depression, anxiety, and failed relationships. Prescott found that the touch deprived are more likely to become dependent on drugs and alcohol (1975, 1980), perhaps in search of the pleasure and serenity that physical affection brings. He also discovered that touch deprived people have more difficulty discriminating between pleasure and pain. They are more likely to engage in self-destructive conduct, and have more serious problems with behaviors that are innately pleasurable, such as affectionate touch and sexual behaviors.
The gradual destruction of this brain tissue by the effects of touch deprivation results in a predictable syndrome of behaviors (Prescott, 1975, 1980), as well as disrupted emotions and interpersonal relations. In fact, it has been proposed that many of the symptoms that clinicians observe in their psychotherapy clients and patients are the direct result of malfunctioning areas of the brain which have been damaged by touch deprivation. Prescott has labeled the constellation of neuropsychological deficits described in this chapter the Somatosensory Affectional Deprivation (SAD) syndrome. As research in this area continues, this syndrome will likely be more precisely defined as a formal diagnostic category.
Harlow's discoveries that his isolated and touch deprived primates developed in highly predictable and bizarre patterns certainly have relevance to human emotions and relationships. Harlow's primates over-reacted to most situations and engaged in a depressive withdrawal to the others. Almost none of their responses to common stimulation and situations were normal. They were hyperaggressive and unable to form adequate relations with other monkeys when reintroduced to their group. Highly unusual sexual responses were typical. They were unable to perform sexually and found it exceedingly difficult to locate a receptive partner for their inadequate attempts at quieting their sexual impulses and drives. In adulthood, they were completely inadequate and abusive partners and parents. Throughout their lives, they engaged in strange stereotyped movements and behaviors that isolated and set them apart from their group. These pathetic touch deprived primates demonstrated a high level of aversion to any form of touch from others. Their usual response to appropriate touch by other monkeys vacillated between fearful and aggressive. The review of all touch research to date leads to the inescapable conclusion that Harlow's primate research has provided us with a highly useful human model of the behavioral impact of touch deprivation.
The growing number of biological studies are reporting findings that show that affectionate touch is an essential "nutrient" to normal brain functioning. They have found that permanent neurological deterioration occurs in several important areas of the brain when the large, richly enervated organ, our skin, fails to receive affectionate touch and send those signals to our brain. Missing, exaggerated, muted, or otherwise distorted perceptions and responses present a barrier to adequate human functioning at all levels.
In its most rigid and fundamentalist form, the Judeo-Christian philosophy is staunchly anti-touch, anti-body, anti-pleasure, and anti-sexual. To our not so distant ancestors the formula "Touch=Sex=Sin" was a bromide to live by. This non-equation is now our cultural heritage in the U.S. Some may argue that this is an overstatement of the present-day importance of a dying or changing philosophy. Some may feel a bit smugly insulated because their upbringing did not include a highly fundamentalist or highly orthodox religiosity.
One of the outcomes of prolonged touch deprivation and the resulting neurological deterioration, is a hypersensitivity to touch. Some researchers (e.g., Prescott, 1975) propose that the average person's experience with affectionate touch in the U.S. and several other countries is so inadequate that it is almost a certainty the majority of the citizens suffer from some degree of significant neurological impairment. This is especially true if you are male, since males in the U.S. tend to receive far less affectionate touch from birth than do females (Hewitt & Feltham, 1982; Juni & Brannon, 1981; Kennell, 1990; Major, 1990). By early adulthood most of these males have as much or more experience with overstimulating, aversive, painful, and traumatic touch than with soothing and affectionate touch. Even though they move through life with a growing touch hunger, most of these males can tolerate prolonged physical contact with another human only if forced, or if they are sexually aroused.
Serious research on the importance of touch began only about 40 years ago. But, since that time, scientists have shown that the amount of body contact in our lives plays a vital role in our mental and physical development as infants and in our happiness and vigor as adults. Touch influences our ability to deal with stress and pain, to form close relationships with other people, and even to fight off disease. Birds do it. Bees do it. Even apes in trees do it…touches, that is. Especially the apes in trees. In fact, in addition to live births, giving milk and having hair on their bodies, the need for touch is the one thing that all mammals--humans included--seem to share. Mammalian systems are designed so that the infant care-giving process involves an enormous amount of contact. Among our closest relatives, the primates, contact between mother and baby is constant. For all mammals, touch is clearly important developmentally.
Touch loses some of its importance, as mammals grow older. But it still quite obviously remains important, and not only to humans. Consider the other mammals that we humans come in contact with most often. Dog owners know that Fido revels in having his neck or chin scratched. How many cat owners have never had an arching, purring feline rub against their legs? And dairy farmers will tell you that all cows love to be milked. Even the largest of all mammals seem to enjoy touch. Despite every good reason to fear humans, whales such as the humpback (up to 62 feet long and up to 53 tons) have been known to pop their prodigious heads out of the sea and allow themselves to be petted and scratched, sometimes for hours.
Various studies have shown that when someone else gently holds a person's wrist, heartbeat slows and blood pressure declines. Children and adolescents, hospitalized for psychiatric problems, show remarkable reductions in anxiety levels and positive changes in attitude when they receive a brief daily back rub. The arteries of rabbits fed a high-cholesterol diet and petted regularly had 60% fewer blockages than did the arteries of un-petted but similarly fed rabbits. Rats, handled for 15 minutes a day during the first three weeks of their lives, showed dramatically less brain cell deterioration and memory loss as they grew old, compared with non-handled rats. Despite all these reasons to really reach out and touch someone, Americans find it difficult, and we don't do it often. Aside from a brisk handshake or an occasional embrace at the airport gate, touching just isn't a big part of our culture.
One study in the 1960s showed a stark contrast between cultures by noting the number of touches exchanged by pairs of people sitting in coffee shops around the world: In San Juan, Puerto Rico, people touched 180 times an hour; in Paris, France, 110 times an hour; in Gainesville, Florida, 2 times per hour; and in London, England, they never touched. A society's touch habits reflect the way people relate on other levels. Americans tend to be a touch cooler than, say, the cheek-kissing Italians or Spaniards. Our physical distancing partially reflects our psychological need for autonomy and independence.
Part of the blame for our society's taboo on touch, lies with the chin-scratching father of modern-day psychology, Sigmund Freud. Freud encouraged austerity in dealing with children. And parents, in an effort to be good parents, bought into that behavior. People, who aren't cuddled a lot as kids, tend to develop into non-touching adults. The cycle then repeats itself, generation after generation. But, Americans, particularly as they become more aware of the potential benefits of touch, are starting to do something about it. This change is especially tangible in the healing arts.
The need for touch, as important as it is throughout our lives, is never more crucial than immediately following and shortly after exit from the womb. Because vision and hearing take time to fully develop, touch becomes possibly the most critical of all the senses to the newborn. There's no question that babies deprived of motherly affection don't fare too well--emotionally or physically. Years of experience with infants raised in public institutions have shown this to be true. Earlier in the century, infants, forced to live in such sterile environments, often wasted away and died. Back then, no one could provide any good explanations. Today, scientists offer fresh insight. Their studies on both human and animal babies have shown that the brain--by releasing or withholding certain chemicals--regulates the physical and emotional development of the infant. And the brain's actions, in turn, are controlled by touch. In studies with premature infants, half of the tiny babies, selected at random, were gently stroked for 45 minutes a day. The other half was not. Although all were fed the same amount of calories, after ten days, the touched babies weighed-in 47% heavier than the unstimulated group. Not only were those babies bigger, they were happier as well. The stroked kids were more active, more alert and more responsive to social stimulation.
In the adolescent years, the parents and child begin to withdraw from one another; the teenager, out of a sense of self-consciousness with her new feelings and physical changes, and the parents, out of book-learned attitudes and discomfort with their developing offspring. Hugging, kissing, and physical closeness may diminish or stop completely then, leaving the young adult starved for affection. This hunger is often satiated through indiscriminate sex with peers; a way of continuing touching where parents left off. The need for touching does not exclude the elderly. While the skin of an older person may be aesthetically less appealing because of wrinkles, spotting, and dryness, the human being inside the skin craves touching more than ever.
In the rat world, the equivalent of maternal stroking, hugging and tickling is licking. But because it's difficult to teach a mother rat to lick or not lick on command, it was found that a wet paintbrush makes a fairly good tongue substitute. As the animals were made to believe that their mothers' affections were being turned on and off, it soon became clear that something else was being turned on and off at the same time: the brain's release of beta-endorphins, a chemical that appears to affect many aspects of growth and development.
When an infant rat senses that its mother is absent, it reacts the way you might if you were stuck at sea in a small lifeboat. First it cries, and then it immediately quiets down. In a lifeboat, you'd probably do everything to conserve your food and water. And the helpless baby whose mom has disappeared shifts all its energy to support its life functions--neglecting those cellular functions that can make it grow up big and strong. The same kinds of physical reactions are going on in human infants deprived of touch. There was a period of about 30 years where the advice was to keep the baby away from the mother for the first week. But in the last few years, there has been a complete turn-around in pediatric practice. Now major efforts are being made to keep babies with their mothers right from the beginning. There are health benefits from snuggling and stroking pet animals, even inanimate objects--teddy bears, for instance. Look at primitive cultures--they're all very touch-oriented. If you want to go back further and look at the higher primates (the closest biological relatives to humans), in every single species, contact plays a very powerful role.
In modern times, health care has strayed far from those primal roots. For while it might seem logical to incorporate touch as part of the healing process, medical historians generally agree that one of the first pieces of technology that set into motion the depersonalizing process in medicine appeared in 1819, with a piece of hardware called the stethoscope. This was the introduction of the technique of auscultation, the science of making diagnoses by listening to internal sounds of the human body. It gave the doctor a whole new way of collecting information about the patient's heart, lungs, and abdomen. It eliminated the old practice of pressing one's ear to the patient's chest. The stethoscope replaced this gesture with something more informative, but less intimate. It eliminated the soothing effect of human touch. More patients are turning to the hands-on skills of chiropractors, massage therapists, and other body workers, for a multitude of problems.
In adults, the benefits of gentle touch include: reducing stress and protecting against future stress, lifting mood and self-esteem, strengthening interpersonal bonds, improving cognitive function, and boosting the immune system. These effects are mediated by hormonal changes, not least a lowering of the stress hormone cortisol and the release of the "love hormone" oxytocin.
The benefits of touch accrue to the giver just as much as to the receiver, for it is impossible to touch without also being touched: people who give out "free hugs" in public places are, of course, also having their hugs returned. Even self-massage reduces stress levels, which probably explains why we are constantly touching ourselves: wringing our hands, rubbing our forehead, brushing our hair and scalp, stroking our neck and upper back, and so on. Even masturbation may be more about touch and stress than about lust itself: in a recent survey by TimeOut New York, 39 percent of office workers admitted to masturbating in the workplace—and that’s just those who admitted to it.
Compared to children, adults are less dependent on touch, but older adults, who tend to be more alone, more vulnerable, and more self-aware, are likely to need considerably more skin contact than their younger counterparts. Therapy animals have become common in care homes, and, despite a lifetime of reservations, residents can be encouraged to hold hands or, for example, rub each other’s shoulders.
Just as we use speech and gestures to communicate, so we use touch. Words can say, "I love you," but touch can also say how and how much, and, at the same time, "I respect you," "I need you," and "thank you." For a long time, scientists somehow thought that touch served merely to emphasize a verbal message. But now it is clear even to them that touch can be the message, and that it can be more nuanced and sophisticated than either speech or gestures, and more economical to boot.
What’s more, touch is a two-way street, and a person’s reaction to our touch can tell us much more than their words ever could. Finally, while words can lie, or be taken for granted, primal touch is difficult to either ignore or discount.
Touch can also serve to convince and motivate, so long, of course, as it is natural and appropriate. One study found that two-thirds of women agreed to dance with a man who touched her on the arm while making the request. When the man kept his hand by his side, his success rate fell by as much as half. Students who, upon returning a library book, had their hand brushed by the librarian reported higher levels of satisfaction with the library and life in general, even if they had not been aware of having been touched. NBA teams with players who touched one another more, for instance, by high-fiving or hugging during a game, went on to win more games, with the more tactile players doing best. Students who had been touched by a teacher tended to participate more in class activities (shame about that strict no-touch policy), patrons who had been touched by a waitress tended to tip her more generously, shoppers who had been touched by a store greeter tended to spend more time in the store, and so on...
As a psychiatrist, I try to shake hands with all my patients and often use comforting touch in moments of distress—almost invariably to good effect. Touch relaxes the patient, makes her feel that she has been seen and heard, and builds a bond of trust. It makes her, and me, feel more human, and, as a result, I think, we remember each other.
A 2018 study by scientists at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee found that skin communicates positive and negative touch stimuli to our sensory neurons.
The outermost layer of our skin, called the epidermis, is predominantly made up of billions of keratinocyte cells. The keratinocytes release a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which activates receptors on the sensory nerve to convey the sensation of touch to the brain. When we hug or feel a friendly touch on our skin, our brains release oxytocin, a neuropeptide involved in increasing positive, feel-good sensations of trust, emotional bonding and social connection, while decreasing fear and anxiety responses in the brain at the same time. For this reason, oxytocin is affectionately known as the “cuddle hormone.”
“If a baby is born prematurely, the baby may be in the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit], but the mother is still asked to go to the NICU a few times a day to hold the baby and put the baby on her chest, even if they’re not breastfeeding,” Shah explained. “We know that this bonding, this human-to-human touch, is important for the growth of that child.”
Even as adults, touch helps regulate our digestion and sleep, and even boosts our immune systems. Hugging can also help our bodies fight off infections, according to a 2014 study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.
In the study, 406 participants responded to questionnaires and telephone interviews to evaluate their level of social support and frequency of hugs over the course of 14 consecutive evenings. After researchers intentionally exposed the participants to the cold virus to test their immune functions, they found that “those who receive more hugs are somewhat protected from infection and illness-related symptoms” and “physical contact with a close other [reduces] the effects of stress on biological markers thought to be precursors of disease.”
While nothing can wholly replace the benefits of positive human touch, virtual alternatives can help alleviate the effects of touch starvation.
“You can have almost the same element if you [connect] by video chat—whether it’s FaceTime or Zoom or WebEx,” Shah said. “You may not be able to engage in physical touch, but you need to be able to see each other.”
Video chatting, he said, is about 80 percent as effective as in-person contact. Online yoga and workout classes, singing and dancing are other activities that increase the release of oxytocin in the brain. Pets are also proven to be therapeutic during stressful times.
Dacher Keltner explains how compassion is literally at our fingertips: Link to full Article
BY DACHER KELTNER | SEPTEMBER 29, 2010 Print Bookmark Greater Good‘s latest video features our executive editor, Dacher Keltner, on the science of touch. Here, he elaborates on cutting-edge research into the ways everyday forms of touch can bring us emotional balance and better health.
A pat on the back, a caress of the arm—these are everyday, incidental gestures that we usually take for granted, thanks to our amazingly dexterous hands. But after years spent immersed in the science of touch, I can tell you that they are far more profound than we usually realize: They are our primary language of compassion, and a primary means for spreading compassion.
In recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch. This research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health.
In my own lab, in a study led by my former student Matt Hertenstein (now a professor at DePauw University), we asked whether humans can clearly communicate compassion through touch.
Here’s what we did: We built a barrier in our lab that separated two strangers from each other. One person stuck his or her arm through the barrier and waited. The other person was given a list of emotions, and he or she had to try to convey each emotion through a one-second touch to the stranger’s forearm. The person whose arm was being touched had to guess the emotion.
Given the number of emotions being considered, the odds of guessing the right emotion by chance were about eight percent. But remarkably, participants guessed compassion correctly nearly 60 percent of the time. Gratitude, anger, love, fear—they got those right more than 50 percent of the time as well.
We had various gender combinations in the study, and I feel obligated to disclose two gender differences we found: When a woman tried to communicate anger to a man, he got zero right—he had no idea what she was doing. And when a man tried to communicate compassion to a woman, she didn’t know what was going on!
But obviously, there’s a bigger message here than “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” Touch provides its own language of compassion, a language that is essential to what it means to be human.
In fact, in other research I’ve found that people can not only identify love, gratitude, and compassion from touches but can differentiate between those kinds of touch, something people haven’t done as well in studies of facial and vocal communication.