Change your mood with a touch

Ever want to change the state of your brain? You need neuromodulation. We have access to a lot of powerful neuromodulators all the time, and we don’t have to look outside ourselves. The skin, the largest organ, has a huge effect on our physiology. Not only is it the border between our bodies and our environments, it also controls hormones and neurochemistry so much that some refer to it as the “third brain” (after the brain and the gut). 

We communicate with our skin via touch and it is vital for brain health because of the many effects it has on our chemistry and function. I’m not talking about sexual touch here. Simple touch can affect our behaviour, mood, memory, cognition, immune system, and every other part of our physiology.

Touch is powerful medicine

Touch triggers a reduction in both cortisol and norepinephrine which are called  “the stress hormones”. Touch also increases oxytocin, “the bonding hormone”, a very important neurochemical produced by keratinocytes in the skin in response to several types of stimulus including soft touch and deep pressure. 

Illustration of Pacinian corpuscle by Henry Vandyke Carter in Gray’s Anatomy (1918)
Illustration of Pacinian corpuscle by Henry Vandyke Carter in Gray’s Anatomy (1918)

Nerve endings including Pacinian corpuscles and Merkel’s discs respond to the input and start a communication chain. For instance when you touch your arm, the nerves in the arm send messages that go up the spinal cord to the thalamus and then the somatosensory cortex. Some cells react quickly and others slowly; some stop reacting quickly and others sustain the effects. Since so many different cells are involved in the communication, many different changes can result.

Give yourself this gift

In the example above where you’re touching your own arm I described the reaction of the arm. Don’t forget the nerve endings in the fingers that are doing the touching will also be sending messages. The one feeling the touch gets benefits; the one doing the touch also gets benefits. You can be both giver and recipient, and double up on the physiological changes.

While it’s great to exchange a hug or a caring touch with another human being, when that isn’t available you can give yourself the gift of touch. Squeeze your hand under the table when a conversation is stressful. Rest your arm on your belly when you feel butterflies. Put your hand on your chest to soothe your heart. Touch the back of your neck to help it relax. Many of these you probably already do by default; now you can do them with intention. Focus your attention on the weight of your hand, the texture and temperature of your skin, the connection you are making. Remember that you have the power to change your emotional state and give your neurochemistry a push in the right direction.

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