From the moment we are born we long for touch.
As the first of the five senses we develop, it not only plays a critical role in developing the way infants process sensations and stimuli into neural signals, but studies now show that from as early as 7 months, babies understand the distinction between felt-touch and observed-touch. This awareness indicates an early understanding between “self” and “other.”
When our bodies are deprived of the touch that we are wired to receive, a cascade of negative physiological and psychological effects takes place in our bodies.
This phenomenon, known as touch starvation, has become a significant issue for many as the global pandemic surges on, forcing isolation and alienation to become commonplace. As a result, it has led many to suffer in a chronic sympathetic state.
And this turn of events has elevated the importance of something most of us may not think much about: our skin.
The skin is our largest organ and performs a myriad of important jobs, such as: protecting us from outside environments, synthesizing vitamin D, regulating body temperature, absorbing nutrients, and excreting waste.
However, one of its most important roles is the seemingly innocuous task of detecting sensations.
How We Process Touch
While it takes only a fraction of a second, the process of converting physical touch sensations into a message the brain can receive is complex. The skin cells, which make up the bulk of the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin), are called keratinocytes.
When the keratinocytes, in conjunction with Merkel cells found deeper in the skin, are triggered through pressure, thermal, or kinesthetic senses, the cutaneous sensory receptors are signaled and release chemical messengers. These messengers, including adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and others, travel through the spinal cord to the somatosensory cortex where the touch is perceived in the brain.
Despite this common physiological process, however, no two brains will process this touch information in the same manner.
When touch stimuli is delivered to the brain, it is interpreted through a unique lens made up of the receiver’s experience, mood, health, and general wellbeing, among other factors.
If, for example, two people bumped heads at the same speed, in the same location, and with the same force of impact, but with one having just been fired from their job, and the other on a honeymoon, the pain that they each perceive will be different.
To further complicate matters, the networks in the brain that receive touch stimuli messages produce natural opioids, such as endorphins and adrenaline. These compounds help us manage pain organically, but the sensitivity of the circuits that release these opioids are different for each of us.
Long (and very complex) story short, we don’t really feel touch, we experience it.
And because we have control over the technical data our brains use to register those electrical bits of information, we have the power to optimize our experience of touch, which in turn, gives us a lot of control over both our physiological and psychological wellbeing.
The Impacts of Touch Starvation
There is a reason why isolation is used as a torture device.
Studies continue to prove that being deprived of touch has profound and detrimental effects — both somatic and emotional. At a chemical level, touch starvation can dramatically increase stress, depression, and anxiety. This effect raises cortisol levels in the body and over-activates our sympathetic response.
On an anatomical level, we see a surge in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and muscle tension, and suppression of the digestive system and immune system. These often lead to problems achieving sound sleep, which further exacerbates mental health problems and results in a vicious cycle.
This state of being is referred to as a sympathetic response, or what’s been called the “fight, flight, freeze or faint” response. By contrast, when we receive touch in a positive way the parasympathetic (or “rest-and-digest”) response triggers the release of oxytocin (known as the cuddle hormone), which basically reverses the negative impact of cortisol.
But to be well doesn’t mean living in a perpetual state of parasympathetic calm.
In fact, neuroscientists tell us that the brain needs a certain amount of manageable stress in order to optimize it’s functioning. A truly healthy being can flow from one state to the other and rarely exists in just one.
A 2019 study suggested the “optimal flow experience occurred when the autonomic state comprised of 87% sympathetic, and 13% parasympathetic response.” This finding means that the goal is not to avoid that fight-or-flight response, but to create a safe harbor in ourselves that allows these different responses to coexist.
The problems arise when we become stuck in a chronic sympathetic response, flooding our bodies with a constant low-grade flow of adrenaline, depriving certain systems and overloading others to the point of failure. However, understanding this deep-seated dual connection between the nervous system and the skin, we can begin to find accessible and readily available solutions to touch starvation.
The Healing Power of Positive Touch
Positive touch has been shown in countless studies to improve emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing. Slow, caress-like hedonic sensations from a trusted giver links our external bodies with our somatosensory cortex. That, in turn, links to our emotional selves, which then affects the way we process tactile information on the skin.
As Professors Andrea Serino and Patrick Haggard explain in their paper Touch and the Body, “Touch is our most immediate and extensive interaction with the world in which we live, but also a crucial agent in the construction of our self-consciousness.”
This affective touch releases natural opioids like oxytocin, which allow your body to counter the negative side effects of the sympathetic response. Digestion and immunity resume functioning, heart rate and pressure regulate, respiration returns to normal, and hormone homeostasis can be achieved as the parasympathetic response intensifies.
Moreover, when you receive therapeutic touch, the results are multifaceted. Beyond the oxytocin and other endogenous opioids we benefit from with interpersonal touch, mechanical manipulation of the tissue decreases tension in the body, diminishes swelling and inflammation, and positively affects the way our brains process pain.
Of course, there are many reason why touch of others may not be available or appropriate.
Issues such as past trauma, financial concerns, and isolation from mental or physical illness may all lead you to seek solutions to touch starvation in a solitary setting.
While we know that others-touch stimulates the brain differently than self-touch (easily demonstrated by our inability to tickle ourselves) there are many self-massage techniques that will offer many of the same benefits by activating the parasympathetic response.
One such example is Abhyanga*, an ancient Ayurvedic practice that boosts circulation, detoxification, and balances your nervous, endocrine, and immune systems.
Touch is integral to wellbeing across all walks of life. It is how we bond with loved ones, create connection in the world, and understand empathy and our very sense of self.
When we are starved of this critical component of wellness, the negative cascade of effects influences every anatomical system in the body and our emotional and mental states. However, whether through self-touch or by the touch of others, the solution to touch starvation is well in hand.
*Whenever you look to ancient techniques to guide your wellness journey, remember how important it is to pay homage to that culture’s history and heritage. The knowledge you gain from asking questions and researching these practices is essential to gaining their benefits without simply appropriating the culture of another.
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