Touch is our first sense. At just eight weeks from conception, a human foetus develops the sense of touch, beginning with the face, lips and nose. By twelve weeks the palms of the hands and soles of the feet are sensitive to touch. By seventeen weeks the growing baby can feel touch on its abdomen. [i] Any new mother will tell you that her baby wants to be cuddled and held all the time for comfort. Through our lives, loving and secure touch is calming to our nervous systems. We are made to experience the world through our skin.
Secure and loving touch calms the nervous system
Secure and loving touch is a great way to activate the calming parasympathetic nervous system. We all know how soothing a big hug feels when we are agitated or sad. A body massage is wonderfully relaxing. Deep pressure stimulation has has been demonstrated to be therapeutic for children with autism[ii]. It is even helpful for calming patients undergoing wisdom tooth extraction! [iii]
Why we touch our faces
Since the Covid 19 outbreak, we have been advised to try not to touch our faces. However this is really difficult because we instinctively touch our faces to calm ourselves in stressful situations. Touching pressure points on the chin, mouth and forehead causes that relaxing parasympathetic response and makes us feel better. We do it without even realising[iv].
While we all need to practice good hygiene these days, there are plenty of ways we can safely use the power of touch to help ourselves feel calm.
Many people find heavy, weighted blankets very helpful for rest, relaxation and sleep. They can be quite expensive, (and too hot for today’s weather!), but if you suffer from insomnia or anxiety a weighted blanket may well a good investment. They work on the principle of calming deep pressure stimulation[v]. I like to cover my Reflexology clients with a heavy blanket while massaging their feet to enhance the total relaxation experience. Even a normal blanket draped over the body, or a sheet in hot weather, instantly helps us feel settled and secure.
Heavy cotton bags filled with sand or shingle are a one of my favourite props for Restorative Yoga and relaxation. You lie down in a comfortable position, and then place these bags over your legs, back or wherever works for you. It is useful if you have a friend to help you drape and later remove the bags. You feel incredibly grounded and safe, anchored to the earth. You can purchase sandbags for relaxation from Yoga suppliers, or even make your own.
When I was a student midwife, I learned how to resuscitate new babies in need of a little help starting to breathe. To do this, you place a mask over the baby’s nose and mouth and squeeze in some air to open the lungs and stimulate breathing. You have to be careful not to put pressure on the eye sockets, because pressure here will cause a parasympathetic response. This slows down breathing, which is the exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve. When you keep the mask in the right place, the baby starts breathing quickly and all is well.
Weighted eye pillows work in exactly the opposite way. When we are stressed and agitated, we breathe too fast and our heart races. Gentle pressure around the eye sockets causes the parasympathetic response, easing you into the “rest and digest” state. Your breathing rate and heart rate naturally slow, and you begin to feel calm and relaxed.
Relaxing with an eye pillow is a simple and cost-effective way to find calm.
Cuddles, Hugs and Massage
Of course loving touch from another human is a brilliant way to find calm. When we get close to people we like, our pituitary gland releases the hormone Oxytocin. Often called “the love hormone”, Oxytocin helps us feel warm, safe, sleepy and loving. It is part of why loving touch feels so good.
One of the more hidden costs of the current Pandemic is the harmful impact of diminished physical human contact, especially for people who live alone. We all need regular and secure human touch to keep our minds and bodies healthy. When it is safe and comfortable to do so, try to share hugs and kind touch with people close to you (obviously with their consent). Stroking and caressing pets is another good way to release Oxytocin too.
Today’s Calming Activity – Calming Massage
Today is very hot, so try to find a cool space for this one! If possible, see if you can give or receive a simple massage or a big hug today. Alternatively, cuddle a pet, or lie down with an eye pillow.
For massage, don’t worry too much about technique. Just make sure both you and the person you are massaging feel safe and comfortable. Stay relaxed, and keep it short and simple. Be careful not to overdo it and hurt yourself. Backs or feet are good places to massage. Avoid massaging on the spine. Do what feels good for both of you.
If you have children, they may enjoy a massage. Or if you can safely do so, hug or gently massage an elderly relative. They will love it.
If you would like to purchase Sandbags, Eye Pillows or any Yoga Equipment by mail order, I highly recommend the excellent Ekotex Yoga from whom I buy all my studio equipment. You can view and purchase via this link:
Thanks for reading this blog post. I am writing a series of 31 blogs every day this August. I plan to publish them later in the year as a book entitled, ‘Finding Your Calm Space – 31 Ways to Find Calm in a Crazy World’.
I’m Karen. I am a Yoga teacher, Reflexologist and busy mum of seven. I live with my family in Billericay, Essex, UK. In the past I have worked as a Midwife, Health Visitor, Baby Signing teacher and Tax Inspector. I love getting outdoors, swimming in the sea, walking and writing. Helping people relax is one of the things I do best.
You can learn more about my Yoga classes and Reflexology at my website www.thecalmspace.co.uk