Most of us would have experienced how powerful touch can be. It can have an immediate affect on your mind and body. When a baby cries, the parent will pick up their bub, giving it a cuddle that soothes and comforts. When we suffer from a headache, we will place our hands on our head and rub the area. We do these things almost without thought.
A few months ago, I was having a really bad day. I was sad, stressed, and feeling very down. I decided to open up about how I was feeling to my partner, he hugged me and listened intently. Suddenly my heart was warm, and my head was calm, and I felt safe and supported.
So why does this happen? How can touch and the sense of being cared for change our physical self?
When we are stressed it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of how we respond to a challenging event. Better known as the “fight or flight” part of our nervous system, it reacts to internal and external stimuli such as a sudden threat to our survival. When we are in this “alerted” state, our body releases stress hormones that; increase our heart rate and blood pressure, muscles are contracted, and we may sweat.(1)(2)
Normally, after the threat passes, the body will return to normal level (homeostasis). However, if you are constantly stressed, worried about something, or feeling fear, they stay turned on. And that impacts the body negatively, exacerbating the symptoms. Prolonged high levels of cortisol (stress hormone), can also affect the way your brain functions and can even cause diseases.(3)(4)
How can a touch help?
When you are massaged, the sensory nerve endings in your skin receive information, which then travels through the spinal cord and on to the brain. The information is then transmitted in the areas of the brain involved in how we perceive touch including emotional centers, fear centers, and our thoughts and actions to those feelings.(5)
Touch can therefore even communicate; "I feel your pain” or “I see how this affects you” and “I understand what you're going through".
Matthew Hertenstein conducted a study in 2009, where participants communicated 8 distinct emotions (anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness) through touch alone. They blindfolded the recipients of touch and the findings showed that 78% of them could feel the emotions that were being passed on by those applying the touch.(6)
Massage therapy, which is predominately “hands on” therapy, has therefore strong effects on our body, both physically and mentally.
Massage therapy stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system(7)(8), which has the opposite effect of the sympathetic nervous system. It relaxes and calms our body, lowering our heart rate and blood pressure, and promoting sleep and rest. It also has been shown that massage therapy releases oxytocin(9), which is often called “the cuddle hormone”. Oxytocin is released from the brain and plays very important roles throughout our lives from child birth, during breast feeding, promoting social behavior and regulating appetite.(10)
A lot of studies have shown that massage can reduce anxiety.(11)(12) In a recent study, people with general anxiety disorder received massage twice a week for 6 weeks and their Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale (HARS)(13) scores were significantly reduced. The results showed that massage is a safe and successful treatment for anxiety.
As professional massage therapists, our aim is to provide a safe and welcoming environment first and foremost. When you walk into our rooms, we want you to feel that the healing process has already begun. Lighting a candle, playing a relaxing playlist and having a warm towel ready can be just the tonic to get you ready for our healing hands.
- Stress response: https://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety/stress-response.shtml
- What is cortisol: https://www.hormone.org/hormones-and-health/hormones/cortisol
- Cortisol affects brain function: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ldquo-stress-hormone-rdquo-cortisol-linked-to-early-toll-on-thinking-ability/
- Cortisol can cause disease: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120402162546.htm
- Sensory system: https://www.headspace.com/blog/2017/08/14/science-of-being-touched/
- Study about touch and communication: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/articles/201303/the-power-touch
- Massage enhances the parasympathetic nervous system: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3220246/
- Massage increases oxytocin level: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23251939
- Oxytocin: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2019-02-oxytocin-so-called-hormone.html
- Massage reduces anxiety: https://www.jpsmjournal.com/article/S0885-3924(08)00561-7/fulltext#/article/S0885-3924(08)00561-7/fulltext
- HARS scores: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/hamilton-anxiety-rating-scale