The Power of Touch
When you hear the word “massage”, what comes to mind?
Many people think of the spa, that special occasion to splurge and “treat yoself”. Yeah, spas can be an awesome place to unwind, but I am passionate about changing the mindset that getting a massage has to be expensive, a rare occurrence, and solely about pampering. Just like our bodies have the regular need for food, movement, and feeling connected to other humans, our bodies also have the need for compassionate touch. Research has long demonstrated the necessity for regular, loving touch in childhood, and it remains a crucial part of adult well-being as well. Receiving regular massage can be a wonderful way to satisfy this indispensable human need, enhance your sense of embodiment, and improve the quality of your life. Getting a massage can be affordable, and when it’s looked at as just as important as food, movement, and belonging, massage has the power to greatly impact your life in a positive way. We’ve only got one life (as far as we know), so why not go through it feeling empowered, nurtured, and energized?
“Just like you can thirst for water, you can thirst for touch. It is a comfort to be met confidently, deeply, firmly, gently, responsively. Mindful touch and movement grounds people and allows them to discover tensions that they may have held for so long that they are no longer even aware of them. When you are touched, you wake up to the part of your body that is being touched” - Bessel Van Der Kolk
If you’ve ever gotten a good massage, you remember how good you felt after (and if you don’t, it might be time for another massage ;) On the surface, getting a massage looks kind of “weird” (thankfully, there is no one looking at you other than the therapist, unless you’re at one of those sketchy massage places on the side of the highway...not the kind of massage I’m talking about anyways). Generally, relaxing music is played (unless you request something else like the Beatles or heavy metal, both of which you’re allowed to do at least with me), you lay on the table, and for an hour or an hour and a half, two hours if you dare, the therapist rubs oil or cream over the requested areas of your body. How can this seemingly simple act have such profound effects? Well, there is a lot going on beneath the skin, quite literally...
Massage Enhances Body Awareness
Have you ever heard of proprioception or interoception? Proprioception is our awareness of our body in space. Our brains receive input from sensory receptors in our skin, muscles, and joints telling us what’s going on in those areas. Without good proprioception, troubles with balance, posture, and planning movements are common.
Interoception is similar to proprioception; however, in this case, our brains receive input from the inside of the body to give us an overall sense of the physiological condition of our body. Interoception is processed by an area of the brain called the insula, which was described by Esposito et al. (2016) as “...‘a busy train station’ connecting several cerebral structures, working as a bridge between brain hemispheres...involved in anxiety control, feeling regulation of disgust, hunger, perception of taste, pain and experience of body image. In other words, the insula decodes messages from our body and tells our brain whether that feeling in our belly is the need to take a shit or just anxiety. It tells us whether that sensation we are feeling in our calf is pain or whether it’s an itch from that f%&^ing mosquito we scrutinized a minute ago. It tells us when we feel like gettin’ it on with our boyfriend or going to sleep. And it has recently gotten a lot of press in the research world because poor interoception (either hypo- or hypersensitivity to sensations) has been associated with a lot of problems like increased experience of pain, greater likelihood of anxiety, depression and the development of eating disorders, addiction and drug abuse (Verdajo-Garcia et. al, 2012). People with impaired interoception are therefore often unable to differentiate between different physical sensations and sometimes they have trouble feeling anything at all, including emotions. Researchers have become interested in the question of whether strengthening interoception can ameliorate these issues. And I’m interested in how massage therapy can change the architecture of the brain and strengthen interoception, therefore improving my clients’ lives.
Turns out, massage stimulates the nerve endings in fascia, which is a direct pathway to enhancing body awareness/interoception. Bodywork techniques, particularly slow techniques that tend to induce feelings of relaxation allow the receiver to accurately process sensory and motor input rather than numbing or on the contrary, over-exaggerating sensations. As a byproduct of enhancing body awareness, massage encourages self awareness, which allows us to see our cognitive patterns and behavior more clearly to actually give us the chance to change them if we so desire. According to psychologist Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of the Body Keeps the Score, we gain “...a sense of “agency” in our lives, a feeling of being in charge of your life: knowing where you stand, knowing that you have a say in what happens to you, knowing that you have some ability to shape your circumstances...the greater [the awareness of our subtle, body-based feelings], the greater our potential to control our lives.” Also, body awareness improves our ability to be more comfortable with the inevitable discomfort in our lives, makes it near impossible to “overdo it” in physical endeavors such as in a sport or during exercise, enhances our ability to enjoy sensations (eating, moving, sex, etc.), and has been shown by multiple research studies to greatly improve body image. Sounds pretty damn great, amiright?
Although the primary purpose of this post is to help increase awareness of the benefits of massage beyond relaxation, I want to note here that massage therapy is not the end all be all to improve body awareness and enjoy all the benefits that come along with greater body awareness. Anything that involves mindfulness (e.g. contemplative practices like meditation, tai chi, yoga, martial arts, etc.) will definitely achieve the same goal, and simply the intention to bring attention to what’s going on in your body throughout the day will help.
Massage Satisfies the Human Need For Touch
Our Earliest Form of Communication
Can you believe that physical touch was our earliest form of communication? It is the earliest sense to develop in the fetus, and after birth, the sense of touch is how we first experience the world. The most important aspect of haptic communication is its ability to demonstrate and build physical intimacy. Countless studies discuss the unfortunate effects of a touch-deprived youth. One of the most famous studies demonstrating this comes from Harry Harlow in the 1950’s (the study would no longer fly nowadays for ethical reasons that will become clear momentarily). He separated monkeys from their mothers and had them drink milk from either a cold, wire look-a-like mother or a different look-a-like mother covered in a soft cloth. Even though the uncomfortable mommy monkey had food, the baby monkeys still chose to spend their time with the comfortable, yet foodless mommy. And when forced by the researchers to only be with the uncomfortable monkey mom with food, the baby monkeys had considerable behavioral abnormalities. Moral of the story? Don’t separate monkeys from their real mothers. And if you do, at least give them a comfortable fake mom. But actually, the real purpose of telling you about this study is that it shows how important touch seems to be...it surpasses the biological drive to EAT.
Do You Even Touch, Bro?
Touch remains as strong a biological need as food for humans too. A study done by scientists at the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute demonstrated that the cells of touch-deprived infants are remarkably less mature than children who are not touch-deprived. And in a review of research conducted by Tiffany Field, preterm infants who received 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 5-10 days gained 47% more weight than those who received standard medical treatment.
Although touch is an absolute necessity during this critical period of development and growth, it is still required as an adult in order to thrive. Unfortunately, though, our experience receiving this kind of touch tends to decline as we age. Think about it: when was the last time you hugged someone? When was the last time you received a really good hug, not just one you do out of habit or because it’s socially expected? And how long can you hug someone before you start to feel awkward? (more on the fascinating topic of hugging here). We are increasingly living in a touch-deprived world as technology becomes more advanced and increases the ability to communicate virtually, taking time away from in-person communication. Even though we can FaceTime someone in Africa within 10 seconds and send chocolate to someone in Russia within a few days, we are still primal animals that have the drive and need for human touch.
Hi, Touch Me Please
Oftentimes, the only touch people are familiar with, and sometimes the only touch people are comfortable with, is sexual touch, and this means that we are missing out on a crucial aspect of human connection. I think part of the reason so many people are only familiar and comfortable with sexual touch is that friendly touch doesn’t happen enough in our culture; people are afraid their touch will be interpreted by the other person in an inappropriate way and perhaps make the other uncomfortable or “triggered”. I can understand this; I am often surprised when I am the recipient of friendly, platonic touch by someone I don’t know super well or even by someone I DO know well because it is such a rare occurrence. Especially as a woman, I can see how someone could be quick to jump to the conclusion that this person (especially if he is a man) has ulterior motives. But my opinion is that this is exactly the cycle that perpetuates the cold, “hands off” culture we live in.
During the ethics portion of massage school, I distinctly remember discussing the issue of men getting boners during a session. Some people might interpret this situation as a pervy guy with the wrong intentions, but what if it’s just a dude who only knows sexual touch? What if his body doesn’t know anything different (of course, the same thing can happen with females, it’s just a little less obvious. And of course, there are also pervy guys with the wrong intentions). There are also people who I’ll never see in my studio because they’d rather do anything else than pay to actually feel their bodies. They simply aren’t comfortable with touch at all - maybe they’ve had significant trauma involving their body or they aren’t comfortable in their own skin. And it’s understandable. Our bodies hold everything that has ever happened to us, and sometimes it can be too much to bear (for more on this very complex topic, I highly recommend the book, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk or any of Peter Levine’s work).
So what do we do about this situation? What if, just like we plan meals, drink water when we are thirsty, and stretch when we feel tight, we also sought out opportunities to satisfy our hunger for physical touch? What if we looked for small opportunities to demonstrate our affection to family members and people we are fond of with gentle touch, asked for a little kiss from our partner when we felt the need rather than just sending them the kissy emoji, or god forbid, chose to hug a friend for 6.3 seconds rather than the average 3?
For those nerdy folk out there like me, here are some more fun facts about touch (backed-up by research):
Spot a pretty lady out at the club? You’ll be more likely to get her to dance with you if you touch her arm a few moments before asking. This was one of my favorite papers I read for research on this post. The article is titled “The effect of a woman’s incidental tactile contact on men’s later behavior”. Something about the title makes me laugh, too.
Touch activates the vagus nerve (pronounced vague-us, not vaj-us, though the latter pronunciation is funnier). The vagus nerve triggers the release of a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is often termed “the love hormone” as it is released during breastfeeding, cuddling, and orgasm. Cool. Cool.
Simply getting eye contact and a pat on the back from a doctor may boost survival rates from complex diseases
When teachers pat students in a friendly way, they are three times more likely to speak up in class
Massage Improves the Health of the Physical Body
I often tell my clients I will never have to worry about being out of a job. No robot or app will ever be able to replace the power of compassionate and skilled hands. Plus, it probably comes as no surprise that as technology advances, people are increasingly paying people to touch them (massage therapists, yoga teachers/therapists, physical therapists, chiropractors, etc.). And not only does receiving a massage appeal to our primal need for compassionate touch, it also just straight-up does amazing things for the health of our physical body. Whether you experience chronic pain, are recovering from surgery or an injury, or simply want to keep up an active and healthy lifestyle, high quality massage therapy has been shown to be extremely beneficial and helpful.
Please enjoy the series of hilarious (disturbing?) photos to follow of robots that I don’t think will make it in the massage industry. But what do I know?
Increases blood flow to muscles that may be deprived of oxygen and therefore causing you problems
Increases joint mobility and flexibility
Improves proper muscle firing patterns
Improves sleep, immunity, toxin elimination, circulation, speeds up scar healing, reduces swelling from injury/surgery
Makes everything better
I have to admit, that last bullet isn’t backed up by research (unless you consider my personal experience a valid source). I no longer see massages as a “splurge”, and I rarely go to the spa to get a massage. I don’t only get massages when I’m sore or injured; I look at my massage appointments as just as important as dental hygiene, regular poops, and Game of Thrones (I know I know it’s over, sadface). Just as with most people in our image-focused culture, I often struggle with the way that I look. But when I get off the massage table after a blissful 90-minutes and look in the mirror, it is one of the rare moments in which I feel perfect and wouldn’t change a thing (bonus: I usually get a good giggle out of how ridiculous my hair looks after them good ‘ole scalp massages). It may sound unbelievable, but I attribute much of my emotional growth over the past several years to having more positive and pleasant experiences with my body: receiving a lot of bodywork, practicing a lot of yoga and meditation, and finding balance when it comes to exercise and movement.
As you can probably tell by now, I am so passionate about this topic and would be more than happy to talk about anything that I mentioned in this blog post in more detail with you. If you have an experience to share with me, I’d love to hear about it, as I am always seeking to learn more. I hope you found this post enlightening and interesting!
And if you’re interested in booking a session with me, go to this link: https://ashevillecommunityyoga.com/healingarts/healing-arts-schedule/
Thanks for your presence!
Research Study References:
Esposito, R., Cieri, F., Giannantonio, M. D., & Tartaro, A. (2016). The role of body image and self-perception in anorexia nervosa: The neuroimaging perspective. Journal of Neuropsychology, 12(1), 41-52.
Field, Tiffany. “Touch for Socioemotional and Physical Well-Being: A Review.” Developmental Review, vol. 30, no. 4, 2010, pp. 367–383.
Guéguen, N. (2010). The effect of a womans incidental tactile contact on mens later behavior. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 38(2), 257-266. doi:10.2224/sbp.2010.38.2.257
Gupta, M A, & Schork, N J. (3/1995). Touch deprivation has an adverse effect on body image: some preliminary observations. The International journal of eating disorders, 17(2), 185–189. Journal Article, United States: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Robert Schleip, Heike Jäger, in Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body, 2012
Verdejo-Garcia, Antonio, et al. “The Role of Interoception in Addiction: A Critical Review.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, vol. 36, no. 8, 2012, pp. 1857–1869., doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2012.05.007.
Body Image, Self- Esteem and Body Image: https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/sports-psychology/body-image-and-self-esteem/body-awareness/
More on interoception: http://blog.amt.org.au/index.php/2017/10/04/what-is-interoception-and-why-does-it-matter/
Even more about interoception: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/interoception
Research on Touch from Berkeley U: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hands_on_research
Touch and Childhood Development: https://www.sacbee.com/news/nation-world/national/article186889938.html
A Summary on the Benefits of Regular Touch: https://www.khca.org/files/2015/10/8-Reasons-Why-We-Need-Human-Touch-More-Than-Ever.pdf
Hugging Health Benefits NBC News: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/pop-culture/health-benefits-hugging-ncna920751