The skin is the largest organ of your body and accounts for almost one-fifth of your total body weight. The skin is constantly growing and changing in sensitivity as it performs its many functions: protection, sensation, temperature regulation, excretion, respiration, and the metabolism and storage of fat.
Touch is the first sense to develop in a newborn.
As an infant takes her first breath, she reaches out to learn what her new world is all about. Sensory receptors located in the skin start picking up enormous quantities of information and sending them to the brain. Pressure, temperature, pleasure, pain—each stimulus carries a message about the environment. Each one adds another tidbit to the infant’s store of experience.
For a baby to develop normally, it is essential that she be touched, physically handled. When touching is denied or severely restricted, an infant may actually die. Thousands of children in U.S. foundling homes (orphanages for the very young) died until, in the late 1920s, this connection between touch and life was understood and remedied. Adults who were deprived of physical stroking in childhood often adopt compulsive, destructive habits such as nailbiting, overeating, or smoking. There is some speculation that violent behavior may also be a result of touch deprivation in early childhood. Cross-cultural and laboratory research both reveal a strong association between early child-care practices and later violent behavior. The child who receives a great deal of attention, whose every need is promptly met, becomes a gentle, cooperative, nonaggressive adult. The child who receives intermittent attention often becomes a selfish, uncooperative, depressed, or aggressive adult.
Yet few adults appreciate how valuable touch can be. Many adults actually avoid bodily contact. If they weren’t touched with care and nurturance as children, they may view touching with suspicion and fear. Many people even fear their own bodies and are reluctant to touch or massage themselves. They are not comfortable with their own skin. Others were taught long ago that touching themselves was sinful, and that vestige of fear remains, especially in sexual expression. Because of the cultural connection between touch and sex, some people are loath to touch others except in formal handshakes, not wanting their actions to be misjudged. Those who are afraid to touch or be touched deprive themselves of a powerful source of nurturance and healing. In fact, when they are depressed or
anxious, they may show an even greater tendency to withdraw from the very things that would help them feel better—a reassuring touch, a sympathetic hug, a healing massage.
There is a growing acceptance of therapeutic massage within the medical profession. In the 1970s, at the New York University Medical Center, Dolores Krieger, PhD, RN, conducted a study to determine the value of what she called “therapeutic touch.” One group of patients received regular care; another group received a simple form of touch from their nurses, similar to the laying on of hands, twice a day. Within one day, significant results were realized. The patients who were touched had increased blood hemoglobin levels (hemoglobin, which is found in the red blood cells, carries oxygen from the lungs to the other body tissues), which aided their recovery. The control group of patients showed no change in this aspect. In other test cases, Krieger verified the value of therapeutic touch in accelerating the healing process. Patients suffering stress-related diseases who experienced this form of touch consistently report feeling profound relaxation and an alleviation of pain and other symptoms, such as nausea, poor circulation, and tachycardia (excessively rapid heartbeat).
As a form of nurturance and rebalancing, and as an aid to healing, massage is hard to beat. Besides, it’s nonfattening, and if you do it yourself, it’s free. Some positive results of massage include:
* relief of pain and tension
* improved muscle tone
* a healthy complexion
* the release of emotional blocks caused by trauma and
* increased blood flow and electrical energy to “wake
up” your tired body parts
* a general balancing of right and left, and upper and
lower parts of your body
Begin with Self-Massage
Self-massage is a type of self-care—a way to heal, increase self-awareness, and build self-appreciation. Besides, it feels great and it’s easy to do. You simply put your hands on your body and start moving them. Lotions, special techniques, and formal training can certainly enhance the experience, but they can also lead you to believe that you need them to do massage “right.” Not true. As you massage yourself, listen with your hands and let them accept feedback from your body and respond accordingly. The more you can quiet the chatter and judgment in your mind and allow your hands to move intuitively, the more creative, relaxed, and enjoyable the results will be.
Try a Head Massage
- Remove any glasses or contact lenses and turn down any bright lights. Rub your hands together to warm them. Slightly cup your palms, fingers together, and place them on your face. Hold them there for thirty seconds or so while you relax.
- When ready, let your hands move over your face in a variety of slow or rhythmic movements, as you like: Make circular moves with fingertips, follow the contours of your face with finger pressure, knead your skin, and so on. Take your time.
- Move your fingertips onto your skull and through your hair. Press all over. Try tapping or rubbing your scalp, or even grasping and firmly pulling your hair for additional stimulation. Explore other options for yourself. Be creative.
- Stroke your head and face smoothly and gently all over, soothing your eyes, ears, lips, and throat. Say nice things to yourself as you do this.
- Using your fingertips, massage your gums by feeling them through your cheeks.
- Gently and sensuously wash your face, or apply warm towels to it. Splash your face with cold water to conclude, and apply some natural oil or lotion for a moisture treatment.
And a Foot Massage
The rubbing of tired feet is an age-old practice. In Oriental medicine, body energy, or chi, is believed to flow lengthwise along energy meridians that end in our feet. Several contemporary therapeutic approaches, like zone therapy and foot reflexology, suggest that there are points on your feet that correspond to every part of your body, such as endocrine glands or the spinal column. Thus working on your feet is comparable to massaging your entire body. Practitioners of foot reflexology believe that pressure or massage to the feet can break up energy blockages and recharge the corresponding segment of your body. While many of these claims are not yet fully scientifically verified, the value of foot massage as a simple, loving, and therefore healing tool is undisputed by anyone who has ever received one.
- Position yourself so you can comfortably hold one of your feet in both hands.
- Using massage oil or lotion, if you wish, rub your feet and ankles all over. Massage your heel, the areas between your toes, the top as well as the bottom of your foot, and your arch. Generally, wake your foot up.
- With specific pressure from your thumb pad or the knuckle of your index finger, explore your toes and feet for areas of soreness and sensitivity. Gently massage those areas, using a smooth, circular motion for fifteen seconds or less. Then move on to another area.
- When you are finished, rub your foot all over as if you were smoothing the skin. Stretch your toes and rotate your ankle. Then begin on your other foot.
Massage for Pain Relief
While severe or long-term pain should always be checked out by a health professional, you can help yourself with everyday pains and aches. If you can reach the part your body that is in pain, you may be able to relieve the ache. Using both hands if possible, cup them slightly and lay them over the painful area. Now begin to breathe slowly and deeply. Imagine that you are breathing warmth and energy through your hands into your body at that point. Imagine that this warmth and energy flows into you through the top of your head and flows out through your hands. Imagine the pain and tension melting away under your hands.
Keep your hands in the same position until you feel a shift in your overall level of relaxation or a lessening in the degree of pain.
Use Massage with Others Too
All of the exercises suggested above can be done with a partner. Consider sharing the gift of touch with another person and allowing yourself to receive this gift in return. Again, it isn’t necessary to have formal training. Your intention to offer comfort or relief is all you need to use a healing touch.
Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.
The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at (http://www.WellPeople.com). The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.