The connection between touch and mental and physical well-being is extremely potent, according to research. Touch stimulates the vagus nerve, which has branches running through your entire body.
“The nerve’s primary role is to slow the nervous system,” says Dr. Tiffany Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “As a result, your heart rate goes down, your blood pressure drops, and your stress-hormone levels fall.”
These effects have a huge impact on your health, studies have found. In Field’s research on adults with illnesses like AIDS and cancer, massage therapy was shown to boost participants’ natural killer cells, which attack bacterial, viral, and cancer cells. Because of the calming effect of touch, massages can improve sleep patterns, allowing you to spend more time in the restorative deep stages of sleep, says Field. Other research shows that touch makes the body stronger and more resistant to pain, and it bumps up your levels of oxytocin, which is the hormone responsible for those warm, fuzzy feelings that come with being around those you love.
Despite all the healthy upsides, Field says she has discovered that people are actually touching one another less today than ever before.
“We interact more on social media than in person. When you’re out, you’re often listening to music or checking your phone, so there’s less of a chance for contact with strangers or even friends,” she says. That means we’re missing out on all the mind-body advantages.
Fortunately, scientists have discovered there are a multitude of ways to tap into the benefits of touch. These are their four top study-backed strategies.
Person-to-person contact is especially powerful. “Consensual touch from a partner reduces feelings of distress when you’re facing something difficult. It also appears to help the immune system work better and might even trigger the release of oxytocin and your body’s natural painkillers,” says Dr. Michael Murphy, a postdoctoral research associate in psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
To draw on those powerful effects, he suggests looking for more opportunities to be physically close to your loved ones, like hugging friends hello or goodbye or giving your partner a shoulder massage while he’s telling you about his day. Just one or two instances of daily contact can significantly boost your well-being.
Bonus: When you’re touched by someone else—during a massage or a hug, for example—the person who’s reaching out to you gets some of the same perks as you do.