We all recognise the signs of being in love. Those in love look happy, ecstatic even! They seem to be brimming with a positive glow, in prime health! There is a raft of known health benefits for those lucky enough to ‘be in love’. For all those who aren’t, the good news is the same health benefits can be derived from hugging and chatting with good friends and family, cuddling pets and getting a massage!
I work in a residential care home delivering massage therapy to the residents and I love to witness the power of touch in action. Many of the residents cannot speak, some have dementia, some have had a stroke. The medium of touch is powerful and can provide a vital and healthy addition to verbal communication. For some of these residents who cannot speak, touch is a significant and life affirming alternative.
Imagine being locked in a world where you cannot communicate verbally as for some of my clients in the residential care home. Where you are fed, bathed, toileted, hoisted around. Oftentimes not necessarily with much care and attention either, through no fault of the carers who are likely to be under pressure to complete their duties within a specific period of time.
When I massage these clients, there is a form of bonding, of communion between myself and the client. I can provide that attention and human connection that is vitally missing for these folk through the power of touch. At the same time my clients are receiving the whole host of health benefits outlined below that otherwise they would not get.
Touch can be healing and transformative
The body of evidence on the benefits of positive platonic touch is convincing.
Touch contributes to a greater sense of wellbeing as it triggers chemical changes that relax the body including dopamine and oxytocin. A hug releases oxytocin, a hormone so powerful it can anesthetize a new mother into feeling less pain when she breastfeeds (perhaps only mums who breastfeed or have breastfed can relate to that pain…!). Regular release of oxytocin, known as ‘the bonding hormone’ also inspires trust, generosity and empathy.
Touch can have an even greater impact than words on physical and emotional wellbeing - given touch can lower blood pressure, slow the heart and regulate breathing, thereby reducing stress.
Touch can boost the immune system. It can reduce the amount of cortisol in the body which is a by product of adrenaline and can affect the body adversely over time if it is not processed from the body.
A hug can stimulate the thymus gland, which regulates and balances the body’s production of white blood cells, which work to keep us healthy and free from disease by fighting off viruses.
And yet, we seem to be operating in a world that fosters less physical contact.
Positive touch is good for us and society!
When is the last time you touched someone in a caring way – hugged, cuddled, kissed someone? Touch is a fundamental need of humans and one that seems increasingly missing in many peoples’ life.
It may be due to circumstance. Often the first things to go when we are stressed, in a rush, so busy as we all seem to be these days, are the little shows of love, support and encouragement for our partners and our kids.
Technology has many great advantages; however screens of all electronic kinds present even further barriers and can cut us off from our own species and can keep us segregated in a virtual world.
We might avoid contact with others due to environment. On a busy commuter train or bus, we seek some personal space, some distance from our fellow travellers; hide behind a book or a screen, avoiding eye contact and any form of communication. Or we drive to and from work in our cars, in isolation.
Increasingly, people are living alone. Statistics show the number of middle aged people living alone has risen significantly (ONS data shows 2.43 million 45-64 year olds living on their own in 2017 compared with 1.59 million in 1996). Notwithstanding there are simply many more middle aged people from the baby boom years of the 60s; divorce rates are higher and marriage is on the decline. However, older people living alone fair less well health-wise than married couples.
Men in particular are impacted adversely by the higher divorce rates which result in living alone and being chronically deprived of healthy, life affirming touch. Living in a culture that dictates men are strong, independent, self sufficient can mean men become isolated and withdrawn. Failing to reach out to others if they experience stress and difficulties with emotions can in turn can make matters worse for them, leaving them open to depression and anxiety and potentially at risk if they resort to unhealthy coping strategies such as drinking, drug taking and other forms of escapism and denial, thus perpetuating the vicious circle of isolation.
There is evidence that the absence of physical bonding in children from their primary caregivers can result in lifelong emotional disturbances. Moreover, a study from 2002 found that “cultures that exhibited minimal physical affection toward their young children had significantly higher rates of adult violence,” Whilst “those cultures that showed significant amounts of physical affection toward their young children had virtually no adult violence.”
Humans are sentient beings. Touch is vital to feel whole, healthy, balanced. Otherwise there can be disconnect, a sense of separateness and loneliness. Social isolation can lead to health risks and a higher mortality rate. Today more than ever it is vital to seek some form of positive touch with others.
Get your fix of positive touch!
I am fortunate enough to have a young son at home to hug every day and as often as I can. It’s natural for him to want less cuddle time with me as he grows and gains independence so that may not last forever! And I too am guilty of forgetting the importance of hugs as we go about our busy lives.
So as well as meeting up with friends and family on a regular basis, I make sure to book in a regular massage for myself! Texting and speaking on the phone doesn’t really count as it’s the power of touch that triggers all the great health benefits. Massage is one of the most simple and effective ways to gain these and as such is a powerful form of self care.