I’ve got the “cure” for stress right here in my hands

by | Mar 5, 2024 | touch and health | 0 comments

One of the fundamental challenges of being a human on planet earth is managing stress.

Beginning with the first moments of life, we experience the stress of separation from the source of all bodily comfort (our mother’s womb) along with conditions that relieve stress (attachment to our mother’s nipple, or such substitute as the world presents to us.)

If you were to measure the levels of hormones in that newborn’s blood, you’d find that the relief from stress corresponds to an increase in the circulating levels of two important mood-related hormones: oxytocin and dopamine. Each hormone influences brain activity and has a wide range of effects throughout the body.

Oxytocin enhances mother-infant bonding, and, in adults, it increases romantic attachment and creates a general sense of ease and comfort among our tribe-mates. Dopamine enhances pleasure and induces a sense of well-being. Each hormone has a much wider range of effects too, with roles to play in leaning, motivation, physical activity, and more.

Immediately after birth, the newborn experiences the stress-relieving effect of suckling. As time goes by, even within the first days and weeks of life, the infant learns to couple the feeling of being soothed with a wider range of experiences: the loving touch of the mother (or other caregiver), and even by the sound of the caregiver’s voice. Then, to the relief of all parents whose infant has just learned to sleep solidly through the night, the baby eventually learns strategies for self-soothing.

As these associations build, a broader range of experiences comes to trigger increases in circulating oxytocin and dopamine, along with the related feeling of ease. Consequently, stress-modulating hormones are released not only during interaction between mothers and infants, but also during positive interaction between adults. In our adult lives, experiencing non-threatening, supportive touch plays a particularly important role.

One reason is that the pulse of oxytocin that’s released in response to supportive touch lasts longer than a pulse that’s released by other calming events. And because supportive touch is a “low intensity” stimulus, it doesn’t trigger the counter-balancing stress-increasing hormones that accompany stronger stimulation, even if it’s positive.

Those who are touch-deprived, or who’ve developed negative associations with being touched, often rely on other potentially harmful oxytocin-releasing behaviors, such as overeating or drug use.

Scientists are now able to identify specific nerve endings in the skin that respond to light touch and trigger beneficial brain changes. Many of the techniques I use are specifically designed to stimulate those neurons, initiating the calming trend.

That’s why I’ve got the “cure” for stress in my hands.

Dr. Lavine has been an innovator in the use of movement and touch to promote health since 1981. He practices in New York City and Princeton, NJ.


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