A single hand massage resulted in a significant decrease in cortisol, as well as a significant increase in emotional indicators of well-being, among both high and low self-critics, according to recent research.

The study, “The physiological and emotional effects of touch: Assessing a hand-massage intervention with high self-critics,” involved 29 women. Fifteen of them scored as high self-critical individuals on the forms of self-criticism/self-reassuring scale, and the other 14 scored as low self-critical individuals on the same scale.

According to the study’s authors, high self-critics often have negative initial responses to psychotherapeutic interventions. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore whether touch might be a beneficial first step “when commencing any well-being intervention or therapy.”

“Research demonstrates that highly self-critical individuals can respond negatively to the initial introduction of a range of therapeutic interventions,” state the study’s authors. “Given its potential to deactivate physiological and neurological systems associated with threat, touch may offer a means by which to calm and relax clients prior to the introduction of emotion/affiliative based therapies.”

All 29 women who participated in the study received a single hand massage and also participated in a control intervention that consisted of holding a bean bag. Each hand massage lasted seven minutes and involved the application of massage to both hands. For the control intervention, participants were instructed to hold a bean bag in their dominant hand for seven minutes. One week later, the same 29 subjects took part in a supplementary intervention that consisted of seven minutes of compassion focused imagery (CFI), an exercise used in affiliative therapy.

The main outcome measures in this study were the physiological and emotional effects of touch, which were evaluated before and after both the massage and control interventions as well as the supplementary intervention. The physiological effects of each intervention were assessed by taking samples of salivary cortisol and alpha amylase. The emotional effects of each intervention were evaluated using questions from three surveys that measure emotional indicators of well-being: the State Adult Attachment Scale, the Types of Positive Affect Scale, and the Positive Affect and Negative Affect Schedule.

Results of the research showed a significant decrease in cortisol among all participants after the hand-massage intervention as compared to the control intervention. Other physiological results included a significant increase in alpha amylase among the high self-critics when they took part in the CFI intervention as compared to the hand massage. As for the emotional effects of touch, the researchers found that all participants reported greater feelings of safeness and relaxation, as well as decreased negative affect and avoidance, after receiving the hand massage.

“The physiological and emotional data indicate high self-critical individuals responded in a comparable manner to low self-critical individuals to a single instance of hand massage,” the study’s authors conclude. “This highlights that focused touch may be beneficial when first engaging highly self-critical individuals with specific interventions.”


Authors: Frances A. Maratos, Joana Duarte, Christopher Barnes, Kirsten McEwan, David Sheffield and Paul Gilbert.


Sources: College of Life and Natural Sciences, University of Derby, England, United Kingdom; and Cognitive-Behavioral Research Center, University of Coimbra, Portugal. Originally published in April 2017 in Psychiatry Research, 250, 221-227.