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Massage benefits for relationships

Oxytocin—the hormone-like chemical produced in the brain when we feel safe, connected, and receive caring touch—regulates the arousal level of our nervous system, and it produces a sense of safety and openness in our relationships.

Whenever we feel stressed, volatile, or are escalating into an argument, the stress hormones that are coursing through our body have revved up our nervous system out of our window of tolerance. And whenever we shut down and withdraw, disconnecting and isolating for safety, our nervous system has become too constricted, and we are unable to engage and repair relationships.

At these times, therapeutic massage is especially valuable since oxytocin is one of the most effective tools we have for regulating the physiological arousal or dampening down of our nervous system. Because oxytocin is also the neurochemical basis for the felt sense of safety and trust, it is the hormone of relational repair. It instantly antidotes the fight-flight-freeze response to any perceived threat or danger. Stress hormone levels are reduced, blood pressure is lowered, and we become less emotionally reactive.

This emotional calming can facilitate greater flexibility and openness, and restore a sense of connection that enables more collaboration and creativity. And when we feel safe and relaxed, we are able to be more generous and loving to everyone around us.

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touch healsReceiving touch is a primary way to reduce stress and calm the nervous system.

There is a growing body of research that shows a link between many forms of touch—from massage to hand-holding—and improved health. A study from the University of North Carolina found that sitting in close contact with a partner for just 10 minutes lowered blood pressure. Other research has found that physical contact can trigger a boost in serotonin, a natural antidepressant.

Biological changes after a single massage

In response to massage, specific physiological and chemical changes cascade throughout the body, with profound effects, says Mark Rapport, MD, director of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He reports that they’re finding biological changes associated with a single massage session. ‘That’s saying something,’ he says.

Easy ways to get more touch

Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, recommends getting a ‘regular dose’ of touch. Here are some easy ways to incorporate more touch into your life:

  • Get regular massage. It’s a form of preventive care and can be a powerful ally in your healthcare regimen.
  • Find a hands-on form of exercise such as ballroom dancing. Or do yoga, which stimulates pressure receptors so is a form of self-massage.
  • Hug someone awarely (the longer the better). You stimulate their pressure receptors as well as your own.
  • Sit close to your partner more often, and hold hands.
  • Give your children short backrubs when you put them to bed. They will fall asleep more relaxed, and you get the benefit of touch, too!

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