healing power of touch
One of the first studies that showed the healing power of human touch was done during WWII. Dr. Rene Spitz was perplexed when orphaned infants that were being given the basic needs – shelter, food, and a sterile environment – were dying. The infant mortality rates sky rocketed as more infants came to the orphanage and, despite being given excellent care, passed away. After extensive study years later, the American psychologist Harry Harlow concluded that the infants died from lack of touch.
The need for human touch isn’t just present in infants. When you are touched, the many nerve endings in your skin send messages back to your brain. This is the way we feel things like pain or heat. When you are touched by another person, the signals sent to your brain translate into feelings of security, happiness, and comfort. These feelings are supported by a decrease in stress hormones and an increase oxytocin, a hormone thought to calm and counter stress. more supportive touch also showed lower blood pressure levels and higher levels of oxytocin. The biological responses of supportive nonsexual touch can actually help the healing process.
Emerging research suggests that touch therapy works: In one landmark study, 16 happily married women were subjected to the threat of a mild electric shock; touching their husbands’ hands brought immediate relief from the resulting anxiety. Even a stranger’s touch was somewhat calming. “We know that anxiety decreases immune function and makes you get sick more often,” says study author Jim Coan, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia. “If touch can help you be less anxious, you’re more likely to stay well.”
And that’s only the start — there are plenty of ways you can put touch to work for your good health. Massage therapy, for instance, may make you more alert and lessen symptoms of depression such as fatigue and irritability, according to the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. “The healing power of touch extends across the life span,” says the Institute’s Tiffany Field, Ph.D., “from helping babies grow and children concentrate at school to decreasing chronic illnesses and disease.”
We don’t usually think of physical touch as a form of therapy, but studies have shown that being touched can actually help lessen pain, improve immune system functionality, improve pulmonary function, increase growth and development, and lower blood glucose.