Human beings need touch in a very literal sense. Being touched in a positive way affects our physiology and gives us a sense of overall well-being. The lack of touch from a very young age can actually affect growth and development. Research and observation of children who have been deprived of touch has shown that they exhibit cognitive delays, decrease in growth, and an increase in aggressive behaviors. In Romania, where national policies on childbearing led to a skyrocketing birth rate, thousands of unwanted children were raised in crowded orphanages with little to no physical human contact. Harvard researchers who traveled to Romania to examine the effects of this type of environment, later described “the muteness, blank facial expressions, social withdrawal, and bizarre stereotypic movements” they observed.
So, what are the physiological changes that take place in the body during physical contact?
Being touched or touching another stimulates the vagus nerve. One function of the vagus nerve is to balance the nervous system by being connected to the parasympathetic functions. The parasympathetic functions are responsible for lowering blood pressure and heart rate, aiding digestion, and helping one feel calm and relaxed.
Stimulating touch receptors under the skin also decreases cortisol levels, which reduces stress in the body. Touch also increases dopamine and serotonin, 2 neurotransmitters that help regulate mood and help relieve stress and anxiety.
Touch also increases oxytocin levels in the brain. Oxytocin is a hormone that is released in response to the activation of sensory nerves that are connected with positive, warm interactions between humans or humans and animals. If you’re having a rough day, hug a human or your pet! Hugging someone for just 20 seconds will activate the release of oxytocin and help bring about feelings of well-being and reduced stress!
It is no wonder that reflexology, a modality that uses touch, is effective for balancing the nervous system, reducing heart rate and blood pressure, lowering stress, and leaving one feeling relaxed and calm!