Updated: Mar 11, 2020
"Touch is food. Vital food." --Deane Juhan
The Effect of Touch on the Nervous System
We all know how wonderful it is to have someone you trust touch you. So many moments in our lives are filled with touch: leaping into the arms of a friend you've missed, holding a loved ones' hand to show support, giving high-fives after a job well done. When we don't receive touch we can feel isolated and cut off from the world. Long periods without any kind of touch can even be detrimental to our health.
Harry Harlow, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, conducted experiments with rhesus monkeys in the 1950's. One group of baby monkeys had a choice between a "mother" made of wire or one made of soft cloth. While both provided milk, the babies overwhelmingly chose to spend their time with the softer, more cuddly mother--especially when under periods of stress. Experiments by other researchers observed that infant rats that did not experience touch from their mothers would suffer from poor development--often resulting in death.
Many studies have found that during early maturation animals developed more quickly with more robust bodies, larger brains, enhanced immune systems, better neural connectivity, and increased emotional stability than animals left to develop without experiencing frequent touch. These enhancements were also observed in adult animals as well, though they "require a longer period of stimulation to show the maximum effect." (Juhan, 49)
"The evidence points unequivocally to the fact that no organism can survive very long without externally originating cutaneous stimulation." --Seymour Levine
Relaxing Touch is Effective Touch
The nervous system is geared to protect.
In massage school we were told dozens of times about how massage has a relaxing effect on the nervous system. "Yes, yes, of course," I thought. Yet, despite checking in with clients many times throughout a session, some would be obviously uncomfortable. They accepted painful stimulation as the only pathway for wellness. "If it hurts, it must be effective."
For the longest time I accepted this idea myself. After all, it can be uncomfortable when we work out. When we go to the doctor they draw blood and often do painful things in order to diagnose or treat a condition. We take medications to keep us alive that have horrible side effects--even death. So why wouldn't bodywork be the same?
It took taking a long lecture-only class by Brian Utting in Seattle to send the point home. The nervous system is the boss. It controls not just your breath, heartbeat, and myriad of hormonal and endocrine functions--it also sets your muscle tone. Nerves secrete their own pain-causing chemicals to limit or change movement patterns in order to protect themselves. The nervous system is geared to protect.
Massage has a calming effect on the nervous system. Many clients notice this during a session, even one that is treatment oriented. They begin yawning, their stomachs gurgle, and they enter a state of transient consciousness.
This is the ideal state in which the nervous system is ready to re-program. Muscles in a heightened state of tonus release and smooth out. Knots unravel at a gentle touch. Inflammation and angry nerves calm and become less sensitive.
Why? Because the diligent sentinel of your body--the nervous system--is finally able to let go. A predictable setting, comfortable position, quiet atmosphere, and calming touch all culminate in a universal release.
The effect cascades: unglued tissues open pathways for various interstitial fluids and blood to once again infuse cells with nutrients and oxygen. Soothed nerves stop "splinting" areas to inhibit movement, resulting in increased range of motion and reduced pain. And the nervous system is finally fed one of its favorite foods: safe touch. People get up from the table feeling more whole.
Regular massage is Nourishment for the Nervous System
Many people get a massage once a year--usually on their birthday. They already recognize how massage has the ability to make them feel: happier, calmer, and less stressed.
However, bodywork tends to have a cumulative effect. Getting a massage infrequently is like brushing your teeth every 2 weeks. We care for our teeth daily and make regular visits to the dentist when possible to keep our teeth healthy for the future. The benefits of a 1-hour, quality massage each month can often last for weeks. If a problem arises (pain, restricted range of motion) it can be resolved quickly before it has the opportunity to create larger patterns of disfunction.
Massage Acceptance in the Medical Community
Due to the diligent efforts of massage therapists over the past decades, massage has finally become accepted by insurance companies and medical providers as a legitimate therapy for preventative and rehabilitative care. I have seen the benefits in my clients and continue to be inspired and fascinated by how touch--both gentle and invigorating--has so much power to heal!
Take Advantage of the Benefits of Healing Touch
If you want to experience the long list of benefits that massage can provide, or simply want to have a safe place to relax and be comfortable in your body, I would love to work with you. Please contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.853.3215 to schedule an appointment!
Thanks for reading! <3