Touch can be an incredible way to soothe, create safety, and help us to feel whole and healthy. Numerous studies have revealed that touch is essential for us humans to thrive and in this blog I’m going to share the details of these studies and what they can teach us about the power of touch.
I’ve seen the profound benefits of touch countless times myself in my one-to-one work, as well with my students on my Art of Touch trainings.
I journeyed through many different bodywork modalities before discovering the deeply impactful, slow, ‘non-doing’ approach to touch that I work with today.
Shiatsu was a great way of learning about the power of touch, though I could never quite feel energy in the way it was explained. Even so, it was rich and beautiful experience, and it gave me my first exposure to zen philosophy and understandings about non-doing touch where less is very much more.
My five-year training as a chiropractor was equally rich, though I’ve now moved away from the philosophy of alignment being the defining key to easing pain and creating health, as well as the notion of being able to diagnose problems in the body through touch.
I came home in the world of bodywork and touching when I discovered Biodynamic craniosacral therapy.
For me, this is the art of touch – the ability to do less, but achieve more. I think this is an extraordinary paradigm which uses slow touch, that is inherently emotional, relational and meets a whole person and considers all of the stories that may emerge inside them.
Slow, safe, relational touch has a far-reaching group of benefits, including:
ONE: It shapes us and helps us to thrive
The first touch we receive after we are born shapes us, teaches us about safety, and shows us why touch is fundamental for our health.
Touch is very important for the growth of babies. Unicef promotes skin-to-skin contact between mother/caregiver and baby. The research shows that this kind of touch calms and relaxes mother and baby, regulates the baby’s heart rate and breathing, supports the colonisation of friendly bacteria and reduces cortisol levels, particularly following painful procedures.
Skin-to-skin contact is now recommended worldwide by international organisations. Follow-up study evidence shows that pre-term babies who receive this kind of contact are thriving at the age of ten. They are better socialised, have better health outcomes and are better able to regulate their emotional framework.
The evidence is clear – gentle touch helps babies to thrive and grow.
Unfortunately, we also have devastating evidence of the reverse. The absence of touch can lead to very poor health outcomes. In the 1980s Romanian orphanages were a cultural phenomenon, in some of them they hardly received any touch from the nurses. This was demonstrated to be a feature of the mental and physical health issues that many of these children suffered throughout their lives.
We especially need touch when we’re coming into the world, and we also need touch towards the end of our lives. Elderly people fare worse when they receive no touch; more sense of isolation, more depression and less ability to move.
TWO: It helps us know we are real and shapes who we are
Philosopher Barry Smith says “the sense we rely on most for reality is touch”.
It’s easy to get lost in thoughts and perceptions and get lost in an overly creative fanstasy world, to know something is real, we grab it and touch it, we hold it.
Descartes concluded, “I think, therefore I am”. However, there’s an equally strong strand in philosophy which proposes that our engagement with the world is central to our understanding and experience of the world.
In our direct and immediate awareness of the body, we know it primarily through the tactile sensations involved in any activity of touching something. Knowing our body is knowing ourself, and we know our body through engagements and our sensing of the world.
The world touches us and we know that we exist through this interaction, so, therefore, we might change the famous philosophical statement to “I touch therefore I am” or “I interact with the world, therefore I am”.
THREE: It teaches us safety and forms our early learning
As a craniosacral therapist I am very interested in our earliest defining experiences, the primary one being our journey through the birth canal. As we’re pushed and squeezed during birth, we have this journey from floating in water and fluid in darkness and the sound of heartbeat into a world of gravity, light, touch and engagement. It’s a powerful journey, full of stimulus, and it is mediated through us touching the world, and the world touching us.
I’m going to offer that all our early learning experiences during birth and our first days in the world; experience of what is safe, what struggle feels like, what collapse feels like, what overwhelm feels like, what support feels like, is in the flesh and formed through the world of sensation and the process of being touched and soothed.
Safety is primed by our birth journey and our immediate contact after birth. Most attachment processes involve touch – it’s not psychological, it’s physiological. All our learning concepts are laid down before we have words, and are formed through touch.
FOUR: It is the primary language of compassion
Mammals and primates share emotion by touching each other.
Dachner Keltner researches touch, emotion, and what we’re able to communicate through touch rather than verbal clues.
“Touch, my studies show, is the primary language of love, compassion and gratitude, emotions at the heart of trust.”
Some of the studies by researchers such as Keltner involve people putting their hand through a rubber curtain. They can’t see the person on the other side of the curtain, they can’t hear them and they don’t know what’s about to happen. The experimenter touches the arm and the person on the other side of the curtain has to work out what emotion they’re trying to communicate. Reliably, compassion is an emotion that can be communicated by touch. This is fantastic evidence for bodyworkers.
FIVE: The right kind of touch can help to ease pain, anxiety and trauma
The latest groundbreaking science, around nerves and pain is showing us that we can use touch, specific kinds of safe, relational touch to help to change the information that our nerves are receiving, which can impact pain in meaningful ways. Touch is primarily emotional, and if we do safe, slow, gentle touch, it generates compassion and safety much more than the ‘quick fixing’ type of touch more traditionally used by some bodyworkers.
Want to explore this in more depth?
Listen to my webinar Touch is Really Strange, it’s now available freely for everyone.
This webinar celebrates the power of ‘Relational Touch’. So often in pain, anxiety and trauma there is a sense of fragmentation, disconnection and confusion as to what we feel. We will explore touch as an art to be cultivated. Skilful slow touch can be used as a lever to help us feel real and whole again.
New TRE 1 year Training
London: Start 21 Jul 2023