Relationship Coaching
   with Amy Newshore M.Ed, CMHC

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Let’s Talk Relationships: Healing through touch: How caring touch boosts mental and physical health

Amy Newshore

For the Recorder

Published: 11/3/2023 9:52:14 AM
Modified: 11/3/2023 9:51:41 AM

Some of us are affectionate by nature and others not so much. Yet every one of us needs some degree of touch in our lives. Touch is a natural part of many areas in our lives — in friendships, love relationships, our families, and activities such as receiving a haircut or massage, playing team sports and dancing.

Throughout our lives, from birth to old age, touch has powerful benefits. We never outgrow the need for safe touch. It’s a universal language that communicates connection and builds trust. Of course, in all relationships, consent and boundaries are essential to creating a sense of safety. It is always best to ask before touching and to refrain or stop if the other person communicates that they aren’t comfortable.

A child is greatly comforted and reassured by a trusted parent regularly offering loving touch as a way of expressing unconditional love. When scared or injured, a child will feel soothed by this type of touch from a caregiver. Likewise for adults, a friend or partner can offer touch when their dear one is upset.

Touch regulates our nervous system, enabling our bodies to relax and our emotional distress to subside. Showing care through gentle touch on a shoulder, a hug, or holding a hand can communicate care for another, especially in moments when when one cannot find words.

Psychologist and relationship expert John Gottman states that “even a mini touch — those little moments,” can make a huge difference. Touch can be a powerful way to both express and receive reassurance, empathy, comfort, support, love, security and compassion. Touch can also help to alleviate loneliness. It just might send the message that “you are important … you matter.”

It is truly profound how touch impacts our mental health and physiology. Touch improves the function of our immune system. The stress hormone, cortisol, as well as heart rate and blood pressure, often lower when we are touched. Touch releases oxytocin, the “feel good” and “bonding” hormone, that enables us to feel close to others and promotes positive thinking. Touch also increases levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, which, acting like the body’s natural antidepressants, help relieve stress and anxiety. Endorphins, also released through touch, serve as natural pain relievers, as well as greatly improving mood.

Studies on touch

Studies of NBA players have shown that teams performed better and won more games when they displayed bonding gestures such as back-slapping, bumping chests and exchanging high-fives.

Another study explored how people in various countries incorporate touch into their friendships, observing pairs of friends spending an hour together at cafes. The results showed that in England, the two friends touched each other zero times. In the United States, in bursts of enthusiasm, the friends touched each other twice. We see a big difference in the pairs from France and Puerto Rico, whose numbers shot up to over 100 times per hour!

Studies have also shown that elderly people who receive weekly massage therapy report feeling generally happier and healthier. Researchers have discovered that caring touch offered to patients with Alzheimer’s is often very effective at helping them to relax, make emotional connections with others, and feel less depressed.

Likewise, touch has a powerful effect at the very beginning of life. Research conducted by Tiffany Field, psychologist, researcher and director of the Touch Research Institute in Miami, found that preterm newborns who received three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy every day, for five to 10 days, gained 47% more weight.

Tragically, in 1960’s Romania, an overwhelming amount of babies and children resided in overcrowded orphanages. Due to the banning of contraception and abortions, many parents could not financially take care of their children. The caretakers of these orphans did not provide enough touch and other necessary stimulation, as there was a ratio of 20 children to one adult. The results were staggering. The children had significant physical impairment, in the form of stunted growth (height and weight), lower IQ, along with high cortisol levels and behavior problems.

Getting your healthy dose of daily touch

Weaving healthy touch into daily interactions with others is possible. We don’t have to relegate experiencing touch, such as hugs and cuddles, only to when we are in a close, significant relationship.

Here are some ideas:

■Pet, hold or cuddle a cat, dog, or other domestic animal.

■Make the most of small gestures of connectedness with friends, teammates, and people you come across in daily life.

■Set up an appointment for a massage.

■Offer hugs to your child, asking if they prefer a tight squeeze or a gentle squeeze.

■Share consensual hugs with close friends or family members.

■Get a manicure/pedicure.

■Trade hand, foot or back massages with a friend.

■Take ballroom, Latin or contra dance classes. (There are many opportunities here in the valley!)

■Wrap or cover yourself with a weighted blanket, which can help to calm the nervous system in the same manner as touch.

The science of touch convincingly suggests that humans, like other species, are wired to connect with each other on a basic physical level. We can’t experience the power of touch through the screen of a computer or phone. We need to spend time with others in person to develop the closeness, trust and warmth that allow for the natural giving and receiving of safe and nurturing touch.

Touch is truly remarkable and certainly has a place in our lives, which can at times be inundated with stress and challenges. Always “at our fingertips,” touch does not need to take a lot of time and effort, and is free. Nature provides! I am cheering you on to incorporate more touch into your life, to add to your aliveness and wellbeing.

Resource: Click on this link https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/video/item/dacher_keltner_on_touch for a short video with more information about how touch can promote emotional balance and health.

Amy Newshore is a couples therapist/coach who earned her Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Antioch New England University and went on to train in the Developmental Model for Couples Therapy along with NonViolent Communication which serve as the foundation of her work as a Relationship Coach. For more information visit her website at www.coachingbyamy.com.


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