The Healing Power of Touch
Emerging research suggests that touch therapy works: In one landmark study, 16 happily married women were subjected to the threat of a mild electric shock; touching their husbands’ hands brought immediate relief from the resulting anxiety. Even a stranger’s touch was somewhat calming. “We know that anxiety decreases immune function and makes you get sick more often,” says study author Jim Coan, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia. “If touch can help you be less anxious, you’re more likely to stay well.”
And that’s only the start — there are plenty of ways you can put touch to work for your good health. Massage therapy, for instance, may make you more alert and lessen symptoms of depression such as fatigue and irritability, according to the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. “The healing power of touch extends across the life span,” says the Institute’s Tiffany Field, Ph.D., “from helping babies grow and children concentrate at school to decreasing chronic illnesses and disease.”
For Taming Stress: Massage Therapy
What it is: You already know that it’s the perfect way to pamper your stressed-out self. But massage can be much more than an indulgence. Neuromuscular massage, for instance — the most common type of therapeutic deep-tissue massage — uses pressure on particular points in the fascia (the fibrous connective tissue that surrounds the muscles) to treat specific injuries or chronic pain. Ordinary massage therapy ultimately works by stimulating pressure receptors under the skin, which increases the vagal nerve activity in the brain, thereby boosting serotonin (the feel-good, anti-pain neurotransmitter) and lowering cortisol, the stress hormone that takes a heavy toll on your defenses against disease.
Why try it? In more than 100 studies over the last 15 years on the effects of massage, the Touch Research Institute found that it can ease pain, improve function of the immune system, decrease autoimmune problems such as lupus and arthritis, enhance alertness, and possibly even lessen your risk for heart disease. One study found that receiving regular massages can help lower blood pressure, anxiety, and stress hormones in those with hypertension. Massage therapy can even curb migraine headaches. Adults with migraines who received twice-weekly, 30-minute massages for five consecutive weeks reported more headache-free days and fewer problems sleeping than a control group that didn’t receive massages, according to a study. Massage also reduced the number of weekly headaches in chronic-headache sufferers, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
For 27-year-old Gena Gilas of Denver, massage put an end to migraines. Her job as a trainer for an insurance company requires hours at a computer or on her feet, sometimes dealing with upset customers. She would get daily headaches so piercing, “they made it hard to see,” Gilas says. Prescription medicines didn’t help. Then one day her company brought in a massage therapist who offered chair massages. The therapist “worked on relaxing the tense muscles in my neck and shoulders, which relieved the pressure that caused the headaches,” Gilas says. Her headache stopped that night, and she didn’t get another one for many days. Now she gets a chair massage at work every two weeks and a full body massage every month or so as a preventive measure.