Updated: Apr 15, 2020
The seven octillion atoms in my body purred.
This isn’t another blog about the benefits of masturbation or sex, well, not entirely.
At the end of the day, what’s in your medicine bag?
Is it always at your disposal?
You’re there, at the end of the day.
Inside you is the most sophisticated pharmacy available with some 60 chemicals that are in a continuous state of animation circulating through you.
So in essence, you are a medicine bag. A mighty groovy one, lined with the largest organ of the human body, skin. For the average human our skin is about eight pounds, or about 22 square feet of flesh. That's a whole lot of territory to touch. A lot of opportunity to stir the chemical soup inside.
Just imagining it gives me chills.
Our sense of touch is controlled by a huge network of nerve endings and touch receptors in the skin known as the somatosensory system. This system is responsible for all the sensations we feel - cold, hot, caress, pressure, smooth, rough, tickle, itch, pain, vibrations, and more. Signals from touch receptors travel along peripheral nerves, which connect to your spine. The spine then directs the signals to the corresponding parts of the brain, where the signals are processed.
With the pervasiveness of uninvited or inappropriate touch bubbling up into our collective awareness, touching is a delicate topic to promote. Which leads me to the next point about touch:
Touch is influenced by our emotional state.
Touch and emotion are virtually inextricably connected. To be touched by someone's words, to read a touching story, the game was touch-and-go. So too, when we're physically touched, our emotional brain is alerted in order to contribute vital information for survival.
Consider, for example, your partners hug in a moment of bliss versus that same hug in the midst of a disagreement. The first scenario, full of cascading feel good chemicals - endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine - interpreting that touch as pleasant and pleasurable. The latter, let's say for the sake of the example, in a stress response, ready to fight, flee, or freeze, with the three major stress hormones: cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline coursing through your brain and body, prompting an overall dampening of the reward centers in your brain, directing you to an unpleasant, even offensive taste in your mouth.
Taking this example a step further, what if the conflict is stirring inside you and not with your partner - an inner thrashing, and your partner attempts the same hug. The stress already alive in your system could leave you just as flat in the reward centers of your brain. The hug, delivered from a generous, loving place but received by an over stressed, disconnected system — your emotional interpretation of that hug moving you to, just as before, a fight, flee, or freeze response — churning out stress hormones, thereby blocking what could've been an opportunity for immune boosting feel good chemicals.
Many live daily without the slightest touch from another. Touch hungry, touch deprived.
It’s both confusing and completely logical.
Instinctually, literally for survival, touch is a critical component in our capacity to thrive.
If we receive regular touch as infants, we’re more likely to reach our growth potential in height and weight. We’ll enjoy more robust immune and digestive systems.
And, among many other benefits, we'll experience less stress, better sensory and motor processing, more alertness, and more security in exploring our environments and being creative.
As we age, we continue to be vulnerable to insufficient touch. Beginning at age 18, each year we lose around one percent of our tactile sense. According to Dr. David Linden in his book, Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind, “by the time you’re old, you’ve lost a whole lot of the touch sense,” says Linden. He further asserts that the density of nerve endings in your hands decrease over time. "Those nerves die off and they don’t come back. Another reason is that the insulating material, called myelin, that coats the fast-conducting nerve fibers and makes them project quickly to the brain, breaks down, so the information gets to your brain more slowly.”
Somewhere along the line, either as an infant or later in our development, the art of touching and being touched drops away from significance.
This can be problematic because the brain works on a use it or lose it system. Dr. Michael Merzenich, a leading pioneer in brain plasticity research, asserts that, "after middle age a sense of relaxation about who we are and what we do lulls us into repeating skills and favorite activities instead of learning new ones which allows the brain to atrophy." Merzenich argues, "that we need to get out of our comfort zone and into the enhancement zone by doing things that are unfamiliar and mentally taxing." According to Merzenich, this leads to greater brain fitness, better health outcomes, and a longer, more vibrant life.
Babies and toddlers are pulsating sensory machines - absorbing so much information from their environments through their bodies. If we continued this way through life it would be dizzying just making it through our day — sensory overload! That touch connection between our brain and our body begins to be reprioritized and the je ne sais quoi of touching and being touched is diminished.
We prioritize other systems in our brain to provide us the quick and dirty approximation for where we are in space and how our bodies are doing. Proprioception (the signaling and perception of the movements and position of the body), exteroception and interoception (the signaling and perception of external and internal bodily sensations respectively) are three, mostly subconscious, systems that our bodies use throughout life so that we can move about our wakeful and sleeping moments with less intentional effort. These free up our brain to work on more complex tasks, and saves us a whole lot of time by not responding to the urge to stop at every shiny or tactilely interesting object along the way to the mailbox each day. Phew!
So it seems, touch is vital throughout our lives. Touch enhances the quality of our lives and delivers us to more pleasurable connections with ourself and others.
Sometimes when we touch*
Let's do a little personal experiment. Close your eyes, bring your attention to your body and your breath as you take a few deep, nourishing breaths. Imagine, you're in the presence of someone you know and trust. You feel safe and peaceful inside. Now imagine they place their hand on your back to show compassion, caress your cheek, stroke your hair, or gently squeeze your shoulder, to encourage you to get up and do it again. Could you feel that in your body?
Whether you did or didn't, it's probable that we each have different interpretations of these examples of being touched. And despite our endeavors to control our perceptions of touch in the above imagine - knowing, trusting, safe, and peaceful - there're so many more variables that sneak their way into our experience of touch.
How we process touch is largely state specific, meaning - what's happening to me right now, what sort of personal historical memories are activated by that touch, am I sick, well, stressed or joyful? How do I feel about that part of me that you just touched? How do I feel about you? Is my environment safe or does it lack elements that could enhance my well being - privacy, work versus home, in the middle of a busy street, late for an appointment, raining or sweltering heat?
Many researchers have attempted to sort out this tangled web of, "why" — why many of us don’t have more safe, pleasurable touch in our lives.
Is it too much technology, touching others through tweets, texts or DM's instead of in the flesh? Is it the fear of being misinterpreted as too intimate, sexually interested, or creepy and lecherous? Is it a healthy respect for others' personal space - which is interpreted differently depending on gender, culture, temperature, environment, relationship, etc? Is it leftover parenting advice from days of yore that warned against the consequences of too much touch for infants and children - wrecked nerves, little tyrants, or, eeks- free thinkers.
Our species has evolved to enliven our tactile sense, in a culture that now discourages it.
In partnership or not, what can we do to quench this thirst for touch?
Your life, your chi, prana, joi de vivre, Qi, spark, yearns for your devoted touch.
For some, touching yourself is part of your daily routine, but I guarantee that you’re at the tippity-top of a ginormous iceberg.
With the exception of touching your genitals of course.
And, in some way, it's less awkward for me to talk about masturbation or sex than it is to suggest you gently graze your fingertips across your inner thighs, or softly caress your lips from your inner elbow down your forearm to the hollow of your wrist, allowing your fingertips to follow and trace their way over your ear, your cheek, your lips, nose, chin, slowly down your neck, the middle of your chest, and then languish in the undulations of your belly - with a barely touching touch that you almost tremble, slightly tickling yourself.
To receive touch from ourselves is very different than from others and requires a slightly different approach. There are numerous touch receptors on our skin accounting for the different qualities of touch. Merkel cells, found abundantly in the fingertips, are discriminative cells. They can identify fine differences in touch making the finger tips great for braille and as a tool for exploring and learning about our environments. Fingertips, along with your lips and tongue, are exceedingly sensitive.
And, maybe you're curious about the sensitivity of other body parts, for example, the head, or glans, of the penis or the clitoris? No? Well, I was! What I learned is that our genitals have their own special kind of touch receptors and lack the discriminative tactile sense of the Merkel cells, hence, not so good for reading braille. In his Ted talk on The Science of Touching and Feeling, Dr. Lindin jokes that if you choose to do "citizen science" to test out the discriminative capacity of your genitals to read braille at your local ATM, "be sure and bring disinfectant wipes."
Due to complex systems in our brain and body, we’re mostly indifferent to our own touch. In fact, many studies claim that these systems inhibit our capacity to be tickled by ourself. Partially because our brain anticipates our touch and partially because it would be far too overstimulating to pay attention to the countless touches we give ourselves throughout the day.
But have no fear, there's a great deal of hope. We can challenge this automatic process by paying attention. Activating the attention centers of our brain to shift our otherwise sensually dormant experience of self touch and bequeath ourselves a torrent of tactile titilation.
Remember before when we talked about neuroplasticity? There's more.
It's not enough to just try something new. Going into the enhancement zone requires more than action, it factors in what you pay attention to, what you think, feel, and want, and how you react and behave in order to have the most robust outcomes. This line from the play M. Butterfly has stuck with me since the day a college professor too closely whispered it in my ear during a fire drill:
"Even the softest skin becomes like leather to a man who's touched it too often"
I was puzzled by his brash, random comment. And at 19, I was oblivious to the inappropriate gestures this married man regularly delivered my way. I remember the moment so clearly, the disdain in his voice, hot, musky, coffee breath - through gritted teeth, spitting in my ear, I thought I'd surely bollixed something up! But he knew. In his own petulant, disparaging way, he knew the power of neuroplasticity. He understood that even the touch of something new can be doomed to be routine and mundane. Constantly searching for that new rush of feel good chemicals and not willing to do the work to begin again each day with the people, places, and things already in his life. It's so easy to see how seemingly small interactions accumulate and encourage less connection with others, making self-touch all the more appealing.
Unfortunately, negative interactions with touch can lead to less connection, even overlapping into denying ourselves of healthy, fulfilling connection with others. Exploring our bodies and learning what feels good, surveying the surfaces, contours, and boundaries of each deserving atom of our skin and the muscles and facia beneath, can lead to greater connection with others. Nurturing and giving yourself what your nature predetermines in order for you to thrive - safe, pleasurable touch - can open you up to a new horizon of communicating your feelings, needs, and desires with others.
So, how about a few tips to get you going with self touch & create lasting health outcomes?
Let's get right to it then - why spare another minute of your life touch hungry? First, open up your medicine bag, your mind, the largest sensory organ in your body. Connect with your breath and body, imagine that you can deliver yourself the healing medicine of your own touch. Bring your attention to your hands. S.l.o.w.i.n.g your breath down, allowing for all sounds, all thoughts, all sensations to be a part of the moment. What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size, according to Carl Jung. So be with the inner and outer chatter, noise, discomforts — be with, not identify with — as your attention periodically returns to your breath and your hands.
Just by focusing on your hands, you may feel a warming or buzzing sensation developing. To intensify this, rub the palms of your hands briskly together for 10-15 seconds. Slowly separate them, allow your mind to wander, imagining where you most need touch in this moment, and bring your hands, palms, or fingertips there.
L.i.n.g.e.r.i.n.g, explore your skin as though it were a foreign land or a dearly missed loved one.
F.e.e.l.i.n.g the temperature, pressure, movements, and textures.
N.o.t.i.c.i.n.g any emotions that float up, notice where else in your body those emotions show up, what does that feel like inside?
Feel a wave of compassion for yourself as you appreciate the coexistence of your strengths and limitations. Deep belly breath in...great big sigh out. And, shake it out.
It takes practice to learn how to override your brain's natural tendency to anesthetize your own pleasurable touch. The more you practice the more you'll discover what you like, how you like it, all the while delivering mood and immune boosting chemicals throughout your system. Self touch can teach you how to request what you enjoy from others, deepening your body positivity. You'll develop more accuracy with establishing boundaries: literally, skillfully negotiating your movements and position in space, and interpersonally, this is your body, your say. With this wisdom, you'll be less touch hungry, and connected to giving and receiving fulfilling touch from yourself and others.
“See how she leans her cheek upon her hand. O, that I were a glove upon that hand That I might touch that cheek!” ― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
There's so much more — a world of endless possibilities for exploring your own hallowed touch — each day — beginning again. Waking up to you, over and over and over again...
Use finger tips, finger nails, a soft brush, feather, soft cloth, anything wispy and light (lavender sprig, willow tree leaves, your hair?), or sharp and sturdy (if you're using something such as a chopstick - the smaller the surface area of the tip, the more sensitive it will be for your skin)
The most important thing to remember is to just barely touch your skin - so lightly that you could use the tip of a nail and not leave an impression (chill it for even more sensation).
Health Benefits: Light touch stimulates the top layers of your skin where there’s a network of tissues and organs filled with lymph. The intended function of the lymphatic system is to move fluid out of your tissues and into lymph nodes where bacteria, viruses and other harmful microorganisms are destroyed. Some call it the body's garbage collector, ridding you of toxin and waste.
Lymph does not have a pump in it like the heart and can become congested. These are just a few suggestions for how to stimulate your lymph and help your body eliminate the toxins, freeing up space in your lymph and giving you more vibrancy overall: gentle massage, deep breathing, drinking more water, reducing the amount of ingested toxins and processed foods, eating more raw fruits and vegetables, lymphatic drainage, alternating between warm and cold water in your morning shower, use detoxifying herbs and spices such as garlic, ginger, turmeric or cinnamon, and more!
Light pressure massage stimulates the lymph to reduce swelling and pain, both calm and energize, support digestion, stimulate your immune system, stimulate new cell growth as it sweeps away dead skin cells, and increase the circulation of white blood cells. Detox!
In addition to smooth skin surfaces, hairy skin is strongly associated with affective touch— touch that evokes an emotional response and is especially sensitive to the effects of a gentle sweeping touch.
Common practices that use a lighter touch: Lymphatic drainage massage, dry brushing, at home facial or simple face washing, drizzling or dripping warm oils delicately over your skin, or taking a shower.
Involves soft, long, kneading strokes, as well as light, rhythmic, tapping strokes, into the deeper layers of the skin and the topmost layers of muscles.
Gels, oils, lotions, and/or cremes complement medium pressure touch by reducing friction and increasing glide over soft tissues and into muscles. Some of these products contain vitamins and nutrients that are essential for skin rejuvenation or ingredients that soothe sore muscles or support in healing an injury.
Heath Benefits: Medium touch enhances circulation and blood flow to the large muscle groups, breaks up scar tissue and activates our bodies immune system to rebuild and restore, body integration, improves the interchange of fluid by bringing the blood nearer to the surface of the body, decreases pain, eases tension and provides relaxation, if pregnant and experiencing swelling - medium pressure self massage can help redistribute fluid that pools in the lower body, it can improve your sleeping by encouraging more time spent in the deep, restorative stages of sleep, and reduces the levels of cortisol.
Common practices that involve medium pressure touch: Effleurage - stroking, Petrissage - kneading/squeezing/wringing, Tapotement - Percussion - hacking/tapping, Qigong knocking, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)/Tapping, hair brushing, scalp massage.
Involves applying firm pressure and slow strokes to reach deeper layers of muscle and fascia (the connective tissue surrounding muscles).
There are a ton of tools on the market to support enhance your massage such as balls (smooth or with mini-rubber spikes), rollers of all shapes and sizes depending on the muscle group you're going after (ie. if your quadriceps are sore, you can use your own weight to apply deeper pressure by rolling over them with a larger foam roller.), pressure point knobs, hand held electric massager.
To avoid injury, it's important to warm your skin and muscles by beginning with gentle to medium pressure, rubbing or kneading and then apply deeper pressure to break up scar tissue and physically break down muscle "knots" or adhesions (bands of painful, rigid tissue) that can disrupt circulation and cause pain, limited range of motion, and inflammation.
Just a light amount of lotion, oil, creme or gel is recommended for better friction and less glide to move deeper into your tissues and muscle.
Health Benefits: Treats chronic back pain, helps lower high blood pressure, breaks up scar tissue, breaks up connective tissues to support posture and structural alignment, reduces stress, anxiety and muscle tension, restores and maintains the body's energy, especially helpful to those suffering from fatigue and overall weakness or insomnia, improves athletic recovery and performance, relief from headaches and migraines, can help with labor pain and delivery, reduces arthritis symptoms, relieves digestive conditions.
Common practices that use the deepest touch: Deep tissue massage techniques, Petrissage - kneading/squeezing/wringing/pinching, Tapotement - Percussion - hacking/tapping, Shiatsu or acupressure to targeted areas - reflexes of the ears, hands and feet, firm hair pulling, and using the tools mentioned above (there's a treasure trove of tutorial videos on line to get you started).
Some Like It Hot* and at other times, Cold As Ice*
How do you mix it up with temperature?
Hot Stones, hot wet towel, warm oils or lotion, paraffin dip, heat pad, hot soaked herbs, hot water dip, sauna, natural hot springs
Hold onto a hot drink - rest it on your lap, hold it against your chest, press it against your lips, feel the heat as it lays over your tongue, and against the inside of your mouth, then moves down your throat - see how far you can feel the heat until it settles in your belly.
Catch your laundry right after it stops and wrap a warm towel or blanket tightly around you, hug a bundle of clothes and feeeeeel the warmth in your embrace.
Walk barefoot in the sand, on the warm dirt or pavement, even roll in it if you'd like.
Rub your hands together vigorously and place them somewhere on your body as you explore qualities of your touch - the warmth, the pressure, the movement, the textures.
Ice, ice pack, chilled towel, chilled cucumber/lemon/handful of peas, chilled lotion, cool rose water spritz, cold water dip, cold can from the fridge on the back of your neck or elbow/knee creases, lips, forehead, pour cold water over your head - let it drip down.
Drink something cold - feel it in your palms, press it against your lips, feel the chill as it touches your tongue, filling up the inside of your mouth, moving down your throat - see how far you can feel the cooling until it settles in your belly.
Walk barefoot in cold sea water, bury your feet in the hot sand until you reach the coolness beneath, wriggle your toes in the shaded grass or roll around getting your whole body into it.
Ahhhh, I'm having so much fun exploring the healing tonic of self touch with you, can we do this forever? I guess we've done enough reading about it for now, let's go out and put it into practice! The world is your playground, your mind is the door, turn your "meh" into meh-smerizing, your medicine bag into a parachute, and float through the infinite space of your own attentive touch.
Now that's keeping it interesting!
In Gratitude & Love,
* Video links to the song titles used in this blog:
Do You Wanna Touch Me - (Bada$$) Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
Sometimes When We Touch - Dan Hill
Some Like It Hot - Power Station
Cold As Ice - Foreigner
Photo Credits (in order of appearance):
1. Ronnie Franco
2. Pete Johnson
3. Ricardo Garcia
Arinn is the Director of Research for Emotional Brain Training and facilitates brain based interventions as a Master trainer for individuals & groups — connecting with people from all over the globe. To learn more about how to create more natural pleasures in your life and to clear away the stress that blocks our feel good chemicals go to ebtconnect.net