The Necessity of Touch

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Posted by Gwyn MacDonald

As a massage therapist I use touch to relax stressed out bodies and minds, ease muscle tension and guide my clients to a more grounded, centered and calm state of being.

As an infant massage instructor I teach parents how to massage their babies. We learn specific strokes for easing tummy discomforts and colic, general strokes to relax or stimulate the skin and why touch is so crucial to the process of growth and development, bonding and communication.

This last word, communication, is not always the first thing that comes to mind when we think of touch. But touch is communication and an important form of communicating at that.

When we touch someone, whether a simple gesture of a hand on a shoulder, a hug, or a full massage, we are stimulating a physiological response in our and their bodies and in turn both expressing and eliciting emotion.

Our touch expresses our concern or empathy, our love and joy, our support, strength and a sense of security.

When our skin is touched, pressure receptors under the skin send signals to the brain, specifically to the vagus nerve, which has branches that traverse the body. It’s connection to the heart is one place where we see the power of touch in action. Research studies have shown that people asked to perform a stressful task( taking a difficult test or giving a speech) had lower heart rates and blood pressure (both governed by the heart) resulting in overall lower levels of stress, when they had a partner there to provide a hug or hold their hands.

Touch also stimulates the release of oxytocin, that essential hormone that increases feelings of trust, bonding and deep connection to others. The connection/communication between the physical and the emotional bodies runs deep and the skin plays a fascinating and powerful role.

In my work I see clients who have lost a spouse and talk about the connection they feel through massage and how it helps them to deal with missing that everyday touch. I see parents connecting deeply to their new babies as they gaze into their eyes and massage a tiny foot or leg. I am grateful for these experiences.

Sometimes we forget that just the simple gesture of placing our hand on someone’s arm, shoulder or hand can change the way they go about their day. It can remind them and us to take a deep breath, to smile or cry and to touch the next person they see in the same gentle way.

To communicate, with our hearts and our hands.

P.S. To read more about the essential role of touch in our lives (and some of the inspiration for my work and this blog post), check out ‘Touching” by Ashley Montegue. Also the incredible work of Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami.

And a brief but informative article from NPR that I give as a handout in my infant massage classes: Human Connections Start With A Friendly Touch by Michelle Trudeau 

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