Touch is the first sense we develop, and thus it is a powerful tool for impacting the nervous system. The nervous system is responsible for regulating our body's response to stress, flipping between “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” as needed. Touch has a calming effect on the nervous system, pushing us toward that “rest and digest” state, giving our bodies a break from the hormones associated with stress and anxiety and replacing them with hormones associated with making us feel safe and happy.
One of those positive hormones released when a person experiences positive, safe touch is oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that is associated with feelings of bonding and connection. It is often referred to as the "cuddle hormone" because it is released during physical touch like hugging, cuddling, and massage. Oxytocin has been shown to have a calming effect on the nervous system, reducing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (the "fight or flight" response) and promoting the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (the "rest and digest" response). And it’s not just oxytocin that is helping us feel so relaxed and happy. Touch also triggers the release of endorphins, which are natural painkillers that are released in response to positive touch. Touch can also stimulate the release of other neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with feelings of happiness and pleasure.
This activation of the parasympathetic nervous system isn’t just relaxing, but it is also crucial to a body’s health. It doesn’t just give you positive feelings but also combats some of the negative effects of the sympathetic nervous system activation (the “fight or flight” response). While the sympathetic nervous system will save your life in the short term (it’ll help you escape a tiger), the body isn’t built to be in that state long-term. The long-term effects of high levels of stress hormones like cortisol are well documented. It not only contributes to mental health issues like anxiety and depression, but also physical health issues like ulcers, digestive issues, high blood pressure, asthma, cardiovascular disease, and much more.
Between the benefits of activating the parasympathetic nervous system and mitigating the negative effects of long-term sympathetic nervous system activation, massage therapy is a powerful tool to support our overall health. The soothing and relaxation is actually crucial for a frazzled nervous system to return to a state that actually improves your overall health and happiness.