new_health (2007-09)

All Touchy-feely

The benefits of touch are real

by Wendy C. Smith

A couple weeks ago, my boyfriend gave me my very first head scratching. Yup, he put his hands in my hair and scratched my head all over. He did this for over 30 minutes. I was in absolute heaven. I don't know if you've ever had a good head scratching, but it's an incredible experience that gets better the longer it goes on. It isn't a sexual experience. It's sensual, tactile and just plain nice. I totally get why my pets start growling and purring when I scratch their heads.

Anyhow, this experience made me think about touch--how nice it is to be touched and the benefits of touch. Our society as a whole is not very touchy. We're afraid of being read the wrong way or of germs. We're afraid to give that little bit of ourselves to those around us. Yet, how many of us have yearned for a hug after a hard day?

There is a lot of research that demonstrates the benefits of touch or actually what happens when we are deprived of it. According to the Touch Research Institute, University of Miami School of Medicine, we need touch from the moment we're born. Infants who are not touched on a regular basis don't have healthy appetites and will literally starve themselves to death. Children who aren't touched a lot have a higher incidence of violent and destructive behavior. In fact, one study of children and adolescents who were hospitalized for psychiatric problems reported that the group that received a brief daily back rub showed steady reductions in anxiety levels and had a more positive attitude. And research on adults has demonstrated that touch improves physical and emotional health and can lengthen life. Our need for touch never diminishes.

The benefits of touch are numerous. Touch reduces stress, increases the body's levels of serotonin and oxytocin (low levels of these are associated with insomnia and high stress levels) and reduces cortisone levels (high cortisone levels are associated with high levels of stress). Touch stimulates the brain's release of beta-endorphins, a chemical that makes us feel good and affects aspects of growth and development. Touch influences neural, glandular and mental changes that make us feel better. Touch increases the depth of our interpersonal experiences. It gives reassurance and comfort, relays trust and understanding and increases self-esteem.

And have you ever noticed that people in love seem to glow and look more attractive? That could very well have something to do with the power of touch. However, the beauty of touch is that it is in no way limited to lovers. The touch of a relative or friend or even a stranger has the power to change our mood and elevate our feeling of wellbeing. So what's up with our hands-off MO?

Our skin is our largest organ. An adult's skin covers about 19 square feet and weighs about eight pounds. On average, a piece of skin about an inch in diameter contains around 50 nerve endings, and those nerve endings like touch. Whether you're perfectly happy and healthy or a bit down or lonely, maybe it's time to start adding a little more touch to your life. If the idea of being "one of those huggy people" doesn't appeal to you, you can still reap the benefits of touch through the healing arts. You know how good you feel after a massage. Well, part of that feel good feeling comes from being touched.

There are many types of touch based therapies. Some of the more common ones are therapeutic massage, cranio-sacral therapy, acupressure, rolfing, shiatsu, reflexology and reiki. Therapeutic massage has a few different forms. There is therapeutic massage (which tends to be a combination of several forms of massage), Swedish massage, deep tissue massage, lomi lomi and shiatsu to name a few. These, along with rolfing, are all massage techniques that have to do with stroking or rubbing the body. Cranial-sacral therapy, acupressure and Reiki are less about muscle manipulation and more about energy manipulation, but involve a laying-on of hands. Either way, all these practices have the common benefits of reducing stress, aiding in relaxation, improving circulation, boosting the immune system and promoting a peace of mind and state of well-being. And although each modality has other pluses that are specific to that practice, they all have touch in common.

I'm not sure we can touch too much, as long the touch is given freely. Touch given with the demand of a return is not honest and has a slightly predatory aspect. But touch given candidly, without reserve, is simply being human and is an understated vehicle by which to further communication or show affection or support. And therapeutic touch is equally as valuable in its ability to reduce stress and keep us open.

I'm lucky enough to have touchy-feely friends and relatives and a boyfriend who gives great head scratches. I know that a hug from a friend can take away the troubles that the world dumps on me. I also know that a 30-minute head scratch is about as close to Nirvana as I've been. It's rare that a utility company can offer counsel to the masses, but "reach out and touch someone" is not only a good slogan for long distance service, it's also good advice.