Healing Touch: The Deep Impact of Bodywork


Research into the impact of stress on humans has a long history, with roots dating back nearly 100 years. During that time, scientists have worked to better understand the biological impacts of stress and explore outlets for relieving stress.

The early research by Hans Selye in the 1930s was groundbreaking. It provided convincing evidence that stress can negatively impact health. Selye viewed the body as a tightly regulated machine where specific stressors were expected to cause hormonal responses. However, this strict input-output model was soon challenged.

New Theories on Stress Emerge

Soon, other scientists began testing different theories on the biological effects of stress. At Rockefeller University, researcher Jay Weiss used electric shocks on rats. One group of rats developed prolonged stress reactions, including ulcers. However, Weiss noticed that a simple act could significantly reduce the stress response. When shocked rats were allowed to gnaw on a stick, their blood pressure and cortisol dropped instantly.

Weiss’ findings revealed the body’s stress response is not solely mechanical. Psychological factors also play a key role. This launched extensive research into how various stress outlets and interventions can affect the body’s stress reactions. The “chewing on a stick” results demonstrated how touch therapy may help relieve stress buildup.

The Power of Compassionate Touch

Human touch has a profound impact. Our skin contains many receptors that process sensory information, making touch an essential communication mode. Evolutionary evidence also explains why supportive touch is important. Most animals adapted to specific external environments, but humans evolved to survive in social groups.

Touch therapy leverages these biological and social needs. Physical contact with a trusted practitioner can provide emotional and physiological relief. When the body senses safety, it can shift its focus from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest.” That’s why massage techniques help cope with clients’ loneliness, anxiety, and other stresses.

Recent studies have identified how caring touch may also lessen pain perception. This adds to the evidence that touch helps strengthen social bonding while also reducing distress. For manual therapists, key questions remain around how to best apply these insights.

Holistic Stress Relief

Skilled practitioners carefully observe client stress signals like jitteriness, shallow breathing, or clenched muscles. A calm, attentive presence helps establish trust. Listening compassionately and making small changes, such as warming blankets, further supports relaxation.

Once clients feel safe, specialized touch techniques can begin releasing upper cervical/suboccipital muscle tension. These areas allow therapists to influence brain regions like the amygdala and vagus nerve that govern stress responses. Applying slow, graded exposure and monitoring client reactions is essential.

The growing trust and improved eye contact of the client signal that the prefrontal cortex is engaged. At this point, therapists can provide encouraging suggestions about recovering strength and confidence. Over time, clients build resilience and an enhanced sense of control over their stress levels.

Final Word

Selye’s pioneering work showed stress is wired into animals as a survival mechanism. But uncontrolled stress causes distress. Through skilled touch and emotional support, therapists help clients gain mastery over their personal stress response. Their findings pointed to comprehensive wellness solutions that remain relevant today.

If you live in Philadelphia, Justin Shelley can provide you with healing massages that can elevate your stress and improve your stress response. Call +1-267-252-7658 to make an appointment.

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