Most people are aware of how touch brings comfort and relieves stress and many understand that the body releases oxytocin when we touch or receive a hug but there’s a great deal more to that touch. So let’s dig a little deeper into how compassionate touch impacts our physiology.
First off human touch is a basic need to thrive and survive. Our skin is covered in touch receptors that stimulate the release of neurochemicals which set off a chain reaction within out body and brain. In one fingertip alone their are more than 3000 touch receptors!
Oxytocin. We’ll start with oxytocin as that’s what most people associate with hugs. Oxytocin is often referred to as the love or bonding hormone and it functions as a neurotransmitter. This neurotransmitter reduces feelings of loneliness, supports us in feeling more connected and boosts feelings of wellbeing. It has a role in regulating the social behaviours in humans including social memory – people and faces. Oxytocin can also function as an anxiolytic agent (a compound reducing stress and anxiety) as it decreases stress hormone release (cortisol) and evokes feelings of contentment, safety and calmness. It is no secret that stress is bad for us.
Here are some other amazing things Oxytocin does: Reduces blood pressure. Lowers our heart rate and slows brain activity. Relaxes our muscles relieving tension in the body and soothing aches.
Other than oxytocin what else happens to our body chemistry and physiology when we give and receive compassionate touch?
Dopamine. It activates the release of dopamine, another neurotransmitter, which is associated with concentration, motivation, and feelings of bliss and euphoria. It calms the parasympathetic nervous system. When someone touches us, they activate pressure receptors within our skin known as Pacinian corpuscles. Here’s where I get a little technical haha. These receptors fire signals to our vagus nerve which is a key element in our parasympathetic nervous system. Our parasympathetic system acts as a safety valve when our brain or body is overwhelmed with stress or is overexcited. It can put us into fight, flight or freeze mode.
The Vagus Nerve. The vagus nerve originates in the brain stem and extends down our neck and into our abdomen. It is linked to our lungs, heart, liver, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines. What impacts the vagus nerve impacts all of these organs. You know when you’re under stress and you suddenly need to empty your bowels or you feel your heart racing?
The vagus nerve is an area within our brain that plays a vital role in regulating many of our body’s key functions including blood pressure. When we are hugged our blood pressure drops as a result of this vagus nerve stimulation and this helps us feel calmer and more secure. It also boosts our immune system.
Endorphins. Gently stroking the body also triggers a massive endorphin response in the human brain. Endorphins are used by neurons in the brain to signal to each other. They are part of our pain control system, and produce an opiate-like analgesic effect. Though chemically related to drugs like morphine there are 2 main differences – on a weight for weight basis endorphins are 30 times more effective as painkillers than morphine plus we don’t get so destructively addicted to them. Physical pain and psychological pain are processed in the same region of our brain so not only do endorphins provide relief from physical pain but they also help relieve psychological pain too. That is why a hug feels so comforting.
And this is why the world needs more huggers – more people unafraid to comfort or simply communicate using compassionate touch.
The way we compassionately touch another transcends any words.
I know we currently need to exercise caution regarding touching or hugging another due to covid-19 but, we also need to start thinking about regaining our trust in touch before it becomes psychologically embedded in our brain to be fearful or complacent about it.
Our wellbeing depends on it.