Joanne Lee

By Joanne Lee

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The Power and Importance of Positive Touch

The Power and Importance of Positive Touch

In this episode Joanne celebrates Pro Touch Awareness Month and discusses the topic of positive touch and human connection. She shares her experience of both negative and positive touch as well as the benefits of positive touch and how you can re-introduce touch and human connection into your life.

Episode 4 Transcript

Welcome to Episode Four of our Full Spectrum Wellness Podcast. I'm so happy to be back here with you for our fourth episode.


October is Pro Touch Awareness month, an event aimed at raising awareness of the benefits of hands-on therapies, especially massage and the importance of human touch and connection.


As a Pro-Touch Ambassador, I’ve taken a pledge to educate about the incredible benefits of hands-on therapies, positive therapeutic touch and human connection.


I love these two quotes,


 "The more we learn about touch, the more we realize just how central it is in all aspects of our lives — cognitive, emotional, developmental, behavioral — from womb into old age. It's no surprise that a single touch can affect us in multiple, powerful ways."
— Maria Konnikova in "The Power of Touch"


"The first sense to ignite, touch is the last to burn out: long after our eyes betray us, our hands remain faithful to the world. … in describing such final departures, we often talk of losing touch."
— Frederick Sachs in A Natural History of the Senses


Re-introducing touch and human connection has never been so important after the last couple of years and the global pandemic. Restrictions meant that we were unable to meet up face to face, instead connecting remotely, unable to hug, shake or hold hands. Therapists were unable to see clients and deliver vital positive and therapeutic touch therapies at a time when they were badly needed. We have all been touch starved which has no doubt lead to increased mental health issues, stress, anxiety, health concerns, relationship problems and much more.


Many studies show that both human touch and snuggling with our fur babies can boost our overall health and wellbeing, help us lose weight, strengthen our immune system, improve our sleep, elevate our mood, stave off illness and soothe us. It’s been shown that touch stimulates the release of oxytocin, also known as the love or bonding hormone and other feel-good hormones, while reducing stress hormones.


Touch is a basic human need and it’s a basic human instinct, what happens when a child falls and hurts itself, the parent picks them up and says “now, now let’s rub it better”. What happens when a friend or loved one is upset, we usually place a hand on their shoulder, hold their hand or offer them a hug.


The power of the positive touch should never be underestimated. Touch is not only essential for stimulating our nervous system and promoting healthy physical development but it’s also essential for our mental, emotional and social development.


In her book The Power of Touch, author Phyllis K. Davis explores the human need to touch and be touched and shares important insights on physical contact, not only as a biological need, but also as a language that communicates love more powerfully than words. The Power of Touch examines the catastrophic effects on individuals not nurtured by loving touch. Phyllis says that people deprived of this kind of touch often exhibit compulsive overeating, restlessness, drug abuse, promiscuity, and workaholism. Even more shocking she says that singles deprived of touch have a death rate five times higher than their married counterparts.


In September 2021 the research article ‘Social touch deprivation during COVID-19: effects on psychological wellbeing and craving interpersonal touch’ was published. It concluded that intimate touch deprivation during COVID-19 was associated with worse psychological wellbeing, namely feelings of loneliness and anxiety. In addition to these effects on wellbeing, individuals seemed to crave this type of intimate touch the most during COVID-19, with such effects being more prominent the more the days they had been practicing social distancing. However, craving touch during COVID-19 depended on individual differences in attachment style as well as in attitudes and experiences towards touch.


One of the advantages of hands-on therapies such as massage is that it is formalised touch, in other words as a therapist I have permission to touch a client within established and defined boundaries for therapeutic benefit only and that’s an important distinction. And that’s the key, to be positive and therapeutic, touch has to be consensual.


As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and physical bullying touch was always an issue for me until I began the process of healing. A big part of my healing journey was my very first massage therapy session. I was away at a residential spa for a weekend with my mum which included a massage therapy session each. This was before I had retrained as a therapist and to say I was apprehensive was an understatement, but my mum had no idea about my experiences and abuse, so I went along to the appointment and met my therapist Sally who immediately put me at ease. Sally has always been my inspiration; I have always aspired to be the kind of therapist she was. Bless her I bet she wondered what the heck was going on in that first session because as she began the treatment, I nearly jumped of the massage couch. Years of built-up fear, worry, tension, shame, guilt, and all sorts of other emotions released in seconds. From that day on every time mum and I want away to the spa I booked in with Sally and the healing continued and I am so grateful for the journey. And not just massage, both Reiki and reflexology have also helped physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically, aiding the management of my PCOS, polycystic ovarian syndrome and chronic migraine symptoms.


In 1997 a study, the ‘Effects of sexual abuse are lessened by massage therapy was published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. Women who had experienced sexual abuse were given a 30-minute massage twice a week for 1 month. Immediately after the massage the women reported being less depressed and less anxious and their salivary cortisol levels decreased following the session. Over the 1-month treatment period the massage therapy group experienced a decrease in depression and in life event stress. Although the relaxation therapy control group also reported a decrease in anxiety and depression, their stress hormones did not change, and they reported an increasingly negative attitude toward touch. So my experience of the therapeutic benefits of massage are backed up by scientific research and I am so grateful for my journey.


Let’s delve a little deeper into how touch can heal. Numerous studies show that:


  • Touch stimulates the body's natural healing process
  • Skin to skin contact between a new mum and new baby as soon as it is born supports better physical and developmental outcomes
  • Hugging lowers blood pressure and heart rate
  • Physical contact also encourages learning and decision-making
  • Touch can also be calming and reassuring to people in distress
  • Touch can reduce feelings of isolation
  • Touch increases levels of feel-good hormones
  • Touch promotes effective communication and maintains relationships
  • The release of oxytocin reduces stress hormones, increases pain thresholds, promotes growth and healing of wounds and injuries
  • Touch can boost the immune system, improving the body’s natural defences and halt or slow the progress of disease
  • People can communicate several distinct emotions through touch alone, including anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy. Accuracy rates ranged from 48% to 83%, comparable with those found in studies of emotions shown in faces and voices.


The Touch Research Institute in Miami has conducted over 100 studies on the positive effects of massage therapy on many functions and medical conditions in many different age groups.


Among their significant research findings are:


  • enhanced growth (e.g., in preterm infants)
  • diminished pain (e.g., fibromyalgia)
  • decreased autoimmune problems (e.g., increased pulmonary function in asthma and decreased glucose levels in diabetes
  • enhanced immune function (e.g., increased natural killer cells in HIV and cancer)
  • enhanced alertness and performance (e.g., EEG pattern of alertness and better performance on math computations)


They state that many of these effects appear to be mediated by decreased stress hormones.


So hug, cuddle, snuggle, hold hands, have a hai cut, stroke your cat or dog, get a massage or book a reflexology or Reiki session. If you struggle with anxiety and panic attacks, live alone and don’t own a pet try ‘Havening’ a self-soothing technique that uses touch to create delta waves in the brain, developed by Ronald Ruden, M.D., an internist with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry.


A simple type of havening is to rub the palms of your hands together slowly, as if you’re washing your hands. Or give yourself a hug. Simply place the palms of your hands on your opposite shoulders and rub them down your arms to your elbows. Another really easy type of havening is to ‘wash’ your face. Place your fingertips high up on your forehead just within your hairline and then let your fingers fall down your face to your chin.


There are 3 main forms of having the first being ‘Transpirational Havening’ which can help if you are feeling anxiety from the day’s events, receive distressing news, or find yourself in a desperate situation. Whilst using one of the simple types of havening I have already mentioned talked about what you’re feeling. For example, as you give yourself a hug, you may say something like, “I’m feeling so worried about the increase in energy prices, I’m worried about how I am going to pay my bills and I’m feeling helpless.” As the touch from the hug produces delta brainwaves, special nerve endings send signals to the part of the brain that make it feel safe and secure. This helps take away the anxiety-producing effects of the words you are speaking.


In other words, while talking about your feelings, the emotions are being neutralised by the delta waves to help restore calm.


The second form is ‘Affirmational Havening’. Repeating positive affirmations while practicing one of the havening techniques can be very powerful combination due to the fact that havening mimics the sleep stage when your brain incorporates the memories of the day. Repeating affirmations while havening puts those positive thoughts into the brain’s memory centers. This can be very effective at resetting your anxiety levels. For example, during the day if you get anxious or frightened, think “safe, peaceful, calm” while you rub your hands together to help defuse your brain’s fear centers and promote soothing.


The third form is ‘Event Havening’ often used for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as it’s been found to help eliminate the intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks associated with PTSD. This form is best done with a professionally trained therapist.


I hope this episode has demonstrated the importance of positive touch and how essential it is for our overall health and well-being. I’m off to snuggle up with my two crazy cocker spaniels, Rosie and Daisy now but I look forward to being back for episode 5 next week. Sending you all lots of love and a big virtual hug.

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