How Physical Connection Helps Us Relax
“We all need the human touch. We all need it, and I need it too!” — Rick Springfield
It’s a pretty well-known fact that gentle human touch releases “feel good” hormones in our brains. (A lesser-known fact: listening to Rick Springfield releases “feel good” hormones in my own brain.)
I was dreaming about pre-quarantine days when I was free to get a massage. In my mind’s eye I could imagine the massage and the way it always releases all kinds of feel good hormones in my brain .
Then I remembered something I heard once in a mindfulness meditation class: the instructor said that the body can’t differentiate where touch comes from. She said that holding one of your hands with the other will have the same positive impact on your body as it would if someone else was holding your hand.
As I stretched my achy muscles and spaced out on a Zoom call, I pondered our need for touch. Having a massage, the touch of someone’s hands, for most of us the experience feels healing. It helps us relax.
But it’s not just massage that does this. Holding someone’s hand, a hug, a touch on the shoulder — there are lots of ways we can increase connection with our fellow humans.
It’s amazing how much we can communicate to each other with a simple touch. A pat on the back might convey a “good job” message. A gentle hand on an arm shows support or comfort to someone without a word. A few months ago I was in a meeting with a coworker and she touched her foot against mine when something happened. I knew it was her way of silently saying, “Can you believe this?”
Touch can also be a self-soothing activity. We rub our stomachs when they hurt. We rub our hands together when we are cold. And massaging an ear or a temple can help reduce pain or cravings.
Researchers have determined that touch has many benefits including:
- Reducing stress or anxiety
- Encouraging positive thinking
- Boosting immune system
- Lowering blood pressure
- Showing empathy
- Promoting trust and connection
- Improving communication
The desire to touch is instinctual. If a friend is having a hard time I might offer her a hug. Although I’m not a person who normally likes to hug, I had the reflex to hug her and try to make her feel better.
Touch between species can also be beneficial for both parties. I once had a very empathic dog, and whenever I was sad or stressed, she would come lay her head in my lap to offer comfort. Rubbing your dog’s head or petting your cat’s back will relax the animal, and probably you as well. Animals are widely used in a variety of therapeutic interventions for humans.
In this world of social distancing and working from home, many of us are craving that human connection more than ever. How do we ensure that we get the benefits of touch?
Start with yourself. Hold your hand over your heart for a moment, close your eyes and focus on the rhythm of your heart. Give yourself a little self-massage, gently and slowly rubbing your hands over your arms, legs, shoulders, neck, while imagining your breath moving towards any area that feels tight or sore.
Then expand your focus to family, friends and the people you live with. Oftentimes we come and go without really “seeing” the people around us. Put down your phone, turn off the TV and interact with those around you. Give them a hug. Touch their arm while you talk to them. Rub their back or their head. Hold their hand. Go with your instincts and see what feels good for both of you.
It doesn’t have to be long and you don’t have to make a big deal of it. Adding small touches and points of human contact throughout the day will all add up to increased connection and well-being for you and those around you. Add some touch to your life today. You’ll be happy you did.