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The Language of Touch: Exploring its Profound Effects in Therapy

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

8 June 2023

a  smiling woman, with her eyes closed, cradling her sleeping baby to her chest.

Healthy, nurturing touch is essential for human development and survival. Touch is the first sense that's developed in utero, before both sight and hearing, and from as early as 21 weeks of pregnancy, a baby responds to maternal touch.

Newborn babies rely on tactile stimulation for both their physical and emotional development. All new parents know the importance of 'skin to skin' contact and it's through this type of touch and the language of sensation that babies receive comfort, which helps regulate their physiological functions, such as heart rate, breathing, and digestion. Touch also promotes the release of hormones which foster trust, closeness, warmth and intimacy. It's this reliable, safe contact together with the information experienced through the other senses - sight, sound, taste and smell - that forms the basis of the secure emotional attachment between mother and baby (and other primary caregivers), that's so essential for healthy development and thriving.

Touch is the unspoken language that creates the secure foundations for life

Our embodied experience of love, acceptance, safety and belonging begins with touch. All mammals rely on neuroception - the unconscious process by which our nervous system detects cues of safety or threat in our environment - for connection and survival. Nurturing, safe touch triggers the release of oxytocin by the hypothalamus and then this acts on the amygdala helping to regulate emotional responses and promote feelings of well-being, relaxation and safety. When the parasympathetic nervous system (dorsal vagal) is activated in safety, this has the effect of lowering cortisol levels and down-regulating, or putting the brakes on, the sympathetic response of 'fight-flight' in the Nervous System.

Touch also contributes to interoception, which is our ability to sense and interpret internal bodily sensations. Through touch, we become more aware of our physical self and our boundaries, through the contact with skin, muscles and skeleton. This internal self-awareness is crucial for the development a healthy sense of personal identity, body image, and self-esteem.

A hand just above the ripples it has created on still water

One touch took me into patterns and experiences of childhood, new meanings and a profound message of 'there is enough support.'

I've worked with the therapeutic power of touch for over 20 years, first as a Thai massage therapist, then including Chinese Tuina therapy, the deep listening of Craniosacral therapy and Myofascial Release Therapy and most recently, as part of Somatic Experiencing (a body-centred therapy developed by Peter Levine for treating trauma, ptsd and stress-related disorders), including touch work for resolving trauma, facilitating incomplete defense responses and regulating the Nervous System through the body.

I want to share a little of my personal experience of receiving this touch work for trauma resolution because I found it to be so deeply moving and profound. A session begins with CONTAINMENT - a simple touch to the shoulders, either lying on a massage table or sitting in a chair; the client chooses. I could never have imagined how such a simple contact could touch so much in me so deeply. This one touch took me into patterns and experiences of childhood, new meanings and a profound message of 'there is enough support.'

The journey then went deeper - connecting with defensive responses that needed to find release from an old injury, patterns from birth and stored grief that I was able to gently experience and process; always guided to move at my own space and held in a safe container by the therapist.

I'm still in awe of the therapeutic potential of Thai massage when offered by a skilled and experienced therapist and have experienced again and again the powerful combination of this work with the more subtle, listening touch of MFR. But Somatic Experiencing touch work has reaffirmed my embodied understanding of one of the quotes I've used about touch for the past 20 years. It's something the Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Than said -

"When we touch one thing with deep awareness, we touch everything"

It's speaking, of course, of the ripple effect. Whether we touch the shoulders, the respiratory diaphragm, the guts or the feet, we're touching into a person's whole system with our intention and awareness and create the possibility for more space, integration and healing there.

Nervous system, endocrine system, muscular-skeletal, respiratory and circulatory systems. We touch it all.

And this isn't just about 'trauma'. This focus on the body and touch offers freedom from patterns, creates space and allows access to greater vitality and energy through all the systems and layers of the body. Ayurveda refers to these layers as the 5 Bodies or 'Koshas' - the physical body, the prana or energy body, the memory body, the subconscious body and the cosmic or spiritual body.

We ALL have patterns that have served us - even saved us - but that now hold us back in some way - these can show up as anything from anxiety to depression; from people pleasing or procrastination to self-sabotage. The truth is that these stored, learned patterns show up in very familiar and so-called 'normal' ways and can cause untold distress and dis-ease when left unaddressed and untended.

Nurturing, meaningful touch and a focus on our embodied experience is not an integral part of daily life for most people. In modern Western culture, touch and a focus on the story of the body have been relegated to the side-lines in therapy and self development in favour of a strong focus on talk therapy and the stories and the narratives our conscious minds tell.

Expressing and making rational sense of our narratives is an important piece of the puzzle but it is only one piece. According to cognitive neuroscientists, we are conscious of just 5% percent of our cognitive activity, so most of our decisions, actions, emotions, and behaviour depends on the approximately 95% of brain activity that goes on beyond our conscious awareness. Regardless of the importance that our culture has given to the conscious mind, the majority of our story and experience begins and is stored in the body.

Touch and a focus in therapy on our 'somatic' (soma = body) experience has been shown to resolve the symptoms of anxiety, ease depression, promote better sleep, improve immune function and increase overall physiological and psychological resilience.

When we listen to the story of the body and release the patterns we find there, we are able to resolve - as opposed to simply learn to cope with or manage - the root causes of dis-ease and distress. We create what most of us dream of and strive for - more space, more calm, more joy and greater connection with both ourselves and the world around us.


Fiona L Smith/ @fionabodywisdom

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