Why Touch Matters
Like a hot shower, a good glass of wine or lying out in the park under the sun, massage is one of those things that make us feel good.
Thanks to a wave of studies done into the area of touch in recent years; we now know that the reason for this goes beyond just the physical benefits. Touch also affects us on an emotional and psychological level as well. To understand the enormous benefits that we can receive from touch or massage therapy it helps to consider what we now know about this growing area of research.
Researchers distinguish between two types of touch and the one that relates specifically to touch or massage therapy is known as ‘affective touch’. It is also referred to as social and emotional touch and the reasons for this will become clearer shortly.
Neurons in our skin send messages to our brain that perceive tactile experiences. Less than 20 years ago, researchers discovered a particular class of neuron known as C-tactile afferents. Unlike all the other neurons that register touch and sensation, these C-tactile afferents are only found on hairy skin and follow a different neural pathway to our brain activating the insular cortex that lies deep in our limbic system. Our limbic system is responsible for emotional regulation and stimulating hormonal responses.
Touch and massage therapy have a direct impact upon these C- tactile afferents especially when a slow velocity, sustained, long stroke is applied to areas like our back, neck, shoulders, arms and legs. This in turn alters the body’s biochemistry decreasing the stress hormone cortisol and elevating the levels of serotonin and dopamine. Both these neurotransmitters effect our mood regulation.
This discovery of C-tactile afferents confirms that we are ‘hardwired’ to receive touch not only to alleviate pain but also for our social and emotional wellbeing. This has implications for clinical practice because under the current medical model massage therapy is seen primarily as an approach to deal with pain relief. If we understand massage therapy from a neurophysiological perspective then we get to a much closer understanding of why touch and massage therapy feels so good and why it is so important in our lives.
Olausson H, Wessberg J, Morrison I, McGlone F, and Vallbo A. 2010. The Neurophysiology of Unmyelinated Tactile Afferents. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 34(2):185-191.
About the author
Douglas Channing is a qualified counsellor and bodyworker. He has has studied a number of different approaches in both fields. He works with both the body and the mind to guide people into a deeper state of awareness around their emotional and behavioural states. It is helpful for working with past trauma, anxiety and pain. This process, works at a neurophysiological level, to help promote a more balanced nervous system so that the client may become less reactive and triggered by events in their lives past and present. As a result of this process, the client develops emotional regulation and learns to trust and feel attuned to another person in order to feel more relaxed and connected in the world.