We are in the midst of a drought – a human-touch drought! Can the somewhat mysterious practice of ASMR be a solution to this problem?
The term “touch starvation” sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie but is actually being used in medical articles to describe the growing lack of physical touch in our daily lives.
Skin is the largest organ of the body, and much like our primitive ancestors, we need non-sexual physical touch to be at our best. So why is touch important? Besides the fact that it just feels plain good, touch helps to regulate dopamine and oxytocin levels in our brain. It also helps keep cortisol, the stress hormone, at lower levels in the body. High cortisol levels can wreak havoc on our heart rates, blood pressure, and inflammatory markers. When cortisol levels are up, our breath quickens, our muscles tense, and our digestion is disturbed. Not to mention what this does to our sleep patterns.
ASMR, most notably known from its hundreds of thousands of Youtube videos, is also a touch-based practice that goes beyond a content creator chewing into a microphone! ASMR is actually the part of our brain that reacts to certain types of stimuli by sending a tingly sensation throughout our body and brains. ASMR is more than sound; it’s also a soft and delicate touch that has a wide-ranging list of health benefits due to its tactile nature.
In recent years, neuroscientists have rediscovered several groups of nerve patterns that cover our bodies. Each of these groups is responsible for receiving and processing different types of external stimuli related to touch. One group in particular, the C-tactile fibres, conveys messages towards the central nervous system. It is these fibres that pick up on the temperature and velocity that allow us to discern between a pat on the back, a caress on our cheek, and other forms of light touch.
Studies on C-tactile-related touch show that it isn’t the brain that is activated by light touch; it is actually the limbic system, which monitors not only our emotions but also an important body function called interoception. Interoception is what helps us know when we are hungry, tired, or in need of a glass of water. This knowledge indicates that light touch is deeply tied to how we feel and that by stimulating this group of nerves, we can develop a greater intelligence of our own inner awareness.
So, much like regular exercise, fresh air, rest, and a healthy diet play a role in our health, so do the ways you physically interact with others! Maybe you have a home full of loved ones, or perhaps you live alone and your main mode of socialisation is with friends and colleagues. In both cases, you may rarely be receiving the non-sexual, physical touch that your system needs to thrive. In fact, it’s been estimated that the average single person living in an urban centre receives less than 1 hour of human touch a month. Studies show that we need a minimum of four hugs a day to stay healthy.
So, what is the quality that C-Tactile Touch is composed of?
- Safety. The source from which it comes is one of the most important factors in quality touch. Having a loved one touch your back vs a stranger on the subway is enough to prove this. The touch must come from a trusted place in order to be beneficial.
- Non-expectant. Touching with ulterior motives can throw our nervous system off. Quality touches don’t come with expectations.
- Speed. Quality touch moves at a slow and steady speed or stays gently in place. Paying attention to this allows the nervous system to relax.
- Pressure. The quality touch is gentle and considerate. Light pressure implies effort and care for the person on the receiving end of it.
- Timing. Quality touch is attuned to and aware of the body language of another. It can feel when it’s time to stay and, equally as valuable, when it is time to go.
If you are lucky enough to have loved ones nearby, now could be a good time to have a discussion and figure out if you are taking the time to include touch in your relationship. If your intimate network leans thin, there is a growing movement of ASMR in-person sessions that could alleviate the downsides of touch isolation. Unlike massage, which can be physically challenging, ASMR sessions focus on light, nurturing touch.
Quality touch is needed now more than ever in our society, and solutions are starting to emerge. It may take time for us to relearn how to touch and be touched, but with practice, we can collectively reap the rewards.
Rebecca Benvie is the founder of an ASMR wellness service, focusing on the therapeutic benefits of gentle, focused touch for individuals with anxiety or mood disorders. Through her extensive experience in private practice, she is dedicated to educating others about the importance of physical contact for mental well-being.