The Psychological Benefits of Touch

Massage - Touch

Massage

is often thought of as a way to relax and unwind – And it is! But did you know there is a vital psychological component to massage as well? Touch is one of the most important cues human beings need to be able to form relationships, cooperate with one another and be healthier, too.

Touch is often overlooked and under-appreciated in our society. Many people are spread out and they remain in their homes more than before, communicating via smartphones and computer screens, instead of having face to face conversations and being close to one another. There is an emphasis for people to have a wide berth of personal space and not touch anyone else. But science is proving that human beings need touch more than they think. In fact, it seems to be imperative to good emotional and physical well-being.

The sad conditions of Romania’s orphanages from the 1960’s to the 1980’s is an example of how bad things can get when babies and infants are not held. During those years, contraception became restricted, abortions were outlawed and childless couples were taxed, in hopes of boosting the population, but over one hundred thousand children ended up in understaffed state run institutions because they could not be cared for. There was one nurse to over 20 infants and as a result, these infants did not get touched often. The psychological effects were astounding. They were void of expression, could not form bonds with others, and had issues so severe that many of them remain in institutions as adults.

When infants are touched often, it increases oxytocin levels in the brain and also seems to activate growth, attachment and response. When infants are not touched, the results are usually disastrous. They do not perform well cognitively, they do not form relationships and they are oftentimes disturbed. But it’s not just infants. When adults who are otherwise of sound mind and body get put into isolation, they quickly unravel and become disoriented, agitated and prone to hallucinations. We need human contact to be mentally healthy.

Where does touch come into all of this? One might think, sure we need some friends but why the emphasis on touch, specifically? Because scientific studies have parsed out touch versus socialization and discovered touch may be more important to well-being than socializing, alone.

For instance, When 20 premature infants were transferred to a normal care nursery, they were given ten minutes of touch therapy and stimulation three times a day. Compared to the other babies, they gained 47% more weight per day and scored higher on alertness and motor coordination tests. They were tested at eight months and twelve months, as well, and the benefits were still apparent. [1]

Infants aren’t the only ones who benefit from touch. When adolescent HIV patients were given massage therapy with their treatment, they reported less anxiety and depression, but also had an increased white blood cell count and immune response, compared to the ones who did not receive massage. [2] Some studies suggest the simple act of hugging other people can boost our own immune response. [3] Because of this, touch is starting to gain traction in nurseries and with the elderly, who are less sick and depressed if they receive massage. In fact, some programs pair elderly people with orphaned babies, for cuddle sessions and care, to their mutual benefit.

Human beings are social creatures. We depend on one another and need close relationships more than many of us would like to admit. Even more so, we need intrapersonal touch. Perhaps not everyone has a circle of friends, family, and lovers to fill that need. Long days at work, relocations, and digital communication seem to be pulling us all away from the tighter, tribal circles we once had. But this doesn’t have to be the way we live. Reach out and touch the people around you, visit people who may be lonely, volunteer to cradle infants, or get a massage on a regular basis. Studies show it will make you happier, healthier, and smarter.

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