There’s no time of year quite like December. Cooler temperatures, holiday festivities, family-induced-stress, and more engagement ring commercials than holiday movies on Hallmark. It all makes for “the most wonderful time of the year.” While others are out ice skating, we say ‘tis the season for hibernation until Spring.
Our desire to hibernate got us thinking at WomanLab. What winter activities can we do that don’t require us to bundle up like we’re hitting the Arctic Circle? Our minds immediately turned to our beds, and yes, to sex. But what about plain old coziness and cuddles? It turns out that, even bundled up in your leisure wear (fancy name for sweatpants), there are millions of benefits of physical touch that you can experience without having to peel any layers off.
The physical, emotional, and mental benefits of sex have long been studied. This season, we are focusing in on the benefits of touch outside of sexual intercourse. What about those of us who can’t have, don’t want, or are simply not interested in sexual intercourse right now? We’re here to tell you that’s OK. Don’t add it as one of your holiday stresses. Your Cousin Tess adds enough.
Cuddling is a medical miracle.
If doctors could bottle the effects of supportive human touch, it would fly off the shelves. It turns out that human contact is a medical miracle. Not only does consensual, supportive touch make us feel loved, warm, and cozy, but there are legitimate health benefits, too. Hugs have been shown to protect against viral cold infections; massage after surgery reduces pain and anxiety, which can improve surgical outcomes; and supportive, loving touch from a partner is associated with decreased blood pressure and heart rate during stressful activities like public speaking. [i] [ii] [iii] Touch is thought to boost the immune system and promote overall health by lowering cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and increasing oxytocin production (the love hormone). [iv] And yes, you can get all these health benefits through cuddles alone.
Touch has even greater benefits for those with cancer.
Particularly for those with cancer and their caregivers, evidence suggests that touch has enormous health and wellness benefits. One study about massage during cancer showed that receiving massage from a loved one three times per week is associated with lower symptom severity and stress, and increased quality of life and caregiver mood. [i] Intuitively we know that a warm touch can offer support when words fail, and provide confidence and security during a stressful time. Now we have science to back it up.
The best part is that this activity is beneficial for both parties. It’s like a tornado of good energy: giving and receiving supportive touch both feel amazing. Want to stave off isolation and stress? Hug someone you love, cuddle before bed, and hold hands walking down the street. Do you feel like a real-life super hero with super-human powers yet?
Touch is intimacy, too.
It turns out that a lot of what people want from sex is warm, intimate physical contact. Intimacy comes through both an emotional and physical connection. Intimate touch can happen outside of sexual intercourse. Nonsexual, caring physical touch—such as hand holding, sitting or lying “cuddled up,” back rubbing—seems to have enormous health and wellness benefits.
Skin-to-skin contact in particular has been linked to a decrease in anxiety and depression, and increase self-esteem and confidence.[i] And it’s also OK when you would rather sit on the couch, sweatpants on, holding hands with your loved one. Remember, holding hands is a form of skin-to-skin contact.
Here are three easy things you can do with a partner, loved one, and yourself to harness all the juicy goodness of touch.
1. Sensual Touch with a Partner
If penetration isn’t right for you and your partner, exploratory sensual touch is a great way to connect and share intimacy. How you do it is up to you, but here are some pointers to get started.
- Set aside dedicated time and find a private, cozy space (read: a room with a lock). Choose who will give and who will receive. Turn that phone on “Do not disturb”– those Amazon shipping notifications can wait. The receiving partner can lay down facing up on a bed or soft surface. Make sure you are warm and cozy. Clothing can be on or off. Eyes can be open or closed.
- Touch may feel better with lubricant on the skin. You can use food grade oils like coconut oil (and you thought the ingredients for those holiday macaroons would go to waste…). We say stay away from scented or tingling products, which can be irritating. The science on vaginal moisturizers and sexual lubricants is pretty slim, but we’ve put together this guide based on the clinical experience of our team.
- For this exercise, try to focus on non-genital areas (e.g. avoid breasts, vulva, vagina, penis). Use consistent, firm pressure, without digging or kneading. If your hands get cold, rub them together. Make sure to check in to see what feels good for both you and your partner.
- The giving partner can start with long stroking motions to warm up the receiver’s body. Use an open palm, making small focused circles to relax tense areas. Stroke your partner’s arms, legs, chest, and abdomen, using gentle and firm pressure. Other good areas to focus on are the scalp, hands, feet, shoulders, and neck.
- Direct your strokes outward, away from your partner’s heart. The stroking will have a warming effect, and may relax and soothe your partner. Feel free to pause and simply lay your hands on your partner for a moment, taking deep breaths.
- Talk to each other! You can use phrases like: “It feels good when you touch me there,” “Instead of this spot, how about this one,” “Can you rub my calves again?” Avoid phrases like: “You spent how much on that gift?”or “Did you pay the credit card bill?”
- Before finishing, take a moment to appreciate the experience. Talk about how it went. What did you love? What made you laugh? You can finish with another round of light stroking, or by laying your hands on your partner’s body for a minute. Thank your partner.
If you have a few minutes, self-massage is a great way to relax, improve your mood, and reduce stress. Especially during holiday season, small moments of relaxation can go a long way. Practice self-massage before bed, first thing in the morning, while waiting for doctor’s appointments or prescription refills….you get the idea. Here are some tips to get started:
- Begin with the head and scalp. Sticking your hands out like antlers, place a thumb on each temple and rub gently, closing your eyes. Take two or three deep breaths.
- Walk your fingers across the scalp until they get to the top of your neck. Knead the muscles at the top of your neck, applying firm pressure. Walk your fingers down your neck, as though playing a piano or typing.
- Knead shoulder muscles by crossing one arm across the chest, placing a hand on the opposite shoulder. Press down on tense areas for several moments at a time, taking deep breaths.
- Give yourself a vigorous pat down. Yes, really. Warm up your body by patting every area you can, from head to toe, using quick, rhythmic motions.
3. Professional Massage
Finally, if you crave a high dose of touch therapy, consider an occasional massage. If you have cancer, you can look for a place that specializes in oncology massage. Always ask your healthcare provider before receiving a massage. Massages, even those from licensed professionals, may not always be the right course of treatment for you. Check with your doctor before booking an appointment, or to see if they have suggestions for referrals. Click here to find a licensed massage therapist near you.
‘Tis the season for self-care
The holidays are stressful enough. Don’t let your sex life be added to that list. Remember: it’s OK if you can’t have, don’t want, or are simply not interested in sexual intercourse right now. You can harness many of the mental and physical benefits of sex with supportive, consensual touch. Now that, my friends, is truly the magic of the season.
[i] Sheldon Cohen, Denise Janicki-Deverts, Ronald B. Turner, and William J. Doyle. “Does Hugging Provide Stress-Buffering Social Support? A Study of Susceptibility to Upper Respiratory Infection and Illness.” Association for Psychological Science. 2015.
[ii] Allison R. Mitchinson, MPH, NCTMB; Hyungjin Myra Kim, ScD; Jack M. Rosenberg, MD; Michael Geisser, PhD; Marvin Kirsh, MD; Dolores Cikrit, MD; Daniel B. Hinshaw, MD. “Acute Postoperative Pain Management Using Massage as an Adjuvant Therapy: A Randomized Trial.” JAMA Surgery. 2007.
[iii] Karen M. Grewen, PhD; Bobbi J. Anderson; Susan S. Girdler, PhD; Kathleen C. Light, PhD. “Warm Partner Contact Is Related to Lower Cardiovascular Reactivity.” Behavioral Medicine. 2003.
[iv] Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Wendy Birmingham, Kathleen C. Light. “Influence of a “Warm Touch” Support Enhancement Intervention Among Married Couples on Ambulatory Blood Pressure, Oxytocin, Alpha Amylase, and Cortisol.” Psychosomatic Medicine. 2008.
[v] William Collinge, Janet Kahn, Tracy Walton, Leila Kozak, Susan Bauer-Wu, Kenneth Fletcher, Paul Yarnold, Robert Soltysik. “Touch, Caring, and Cancer: randomized controlled trial of a multimedia caregiver education program.” Supportive Care in Cancer. 2013.
[vi] Tiffany Field. “Touch for socioemotional and physical well-being: A review.” Developmental Review. 2010.