The power of touch
Updated: Oct 9, 2019
The final months of each year tend to be hard for me. I dislike the dark days, I know my mental health suffers from lack of light. Also I find that it’s harder to get work as people prioritise their spending on the ever growing commercialisation of Christmas.
In recent years I’ve added parental bereavement to the mix and this year, as well as a new autoimmune disease diagnosis, I'm also negotiating a commercial lease agreement which is taking longer than hoped (therefore I am not earning). I’ve also supported a 3 month hospital stay which caused further iatrogenic trauma to the individual and contributed to me needing to work on suicide prevention.
You can't pour from an empty jug
So, I’m running on empty. You can’t pour from an empty jug, the saying goes. Thankfully, I still prioritise my twice monthly massages. If truth be told, I’d love to add more! Because it really helps. Gone are the days when I too used to think Massage was a luxury for people with money. It’s not. It is maintenance. Just as some people spend money on the outside of their body to look good, with haircuts, beauty treatments, etc, many people realise that looking and feeling good comes from within.
This week I arrived for my NO HANDS Massage with Barbara feeling a little lost and weary. During consultation I described how I was feeling and Barbara took the time to listen to me. And tease out what it is I needed to feel. We worked together, to realise I felt depleted.
Normally I love a slow and deep massage. I like to feel my back has been realigned. But I'm on the edge of burn out the last thing I needs is deep. I need light, nurturing touch which soothes and feels like being held.
So, I get on the massage table, and breathe....
I notice my deep breaths, in my own rhythm. The out-breath slightly longer than the in-breath. I just feel her gentle touch. Sometimes Barbara simply lays her hands ever so lightly on me and I can feel the warmth seeping into me. Then she slowly and lightly works, breathing, focusing on her client, the balm providing just enough gentle slip. I focus on how I wanted to feel.
When the treatment is finished she leaves the room and I lie on the table for a little while, allowing my body to feel the massage still flowing... then I carefully get up and get dressed. I begin to walk around the room as Barbara returns. Taking notice of what my body feels like as I walk, I tell her that I feel more together again. There’s a sense of being grounded. Yet I feel tall and straight. I feel replenished. My jug is full again.
It might sound like magic but it's simple science. It's Psychoneuroimmunology or the Mind/Body Connection. As mammals we require safe touch from the moment we are conceived. We are held within the womb, cocooned and held. But often it can all start going wrong even from here.
I recall being told I was ‘going to wear that bairn away’ when I was caught absentmindedly rubbing the growing bump of my first child. We often hear about the risk of creating a ‘rod for our own back’ if we instinctively respond to the cries of our babies. We’re told to put the baby down if we know it’s been fed, changed and had all it’s needs met. It seems the need to be held and reassured is not recognised. But there is a growing body of evidence that shows the power of touch. A recent paper recognises that “touch-based techniques, such as infant massage and kangaroo care, are designed to comfort infants during procedures, and a modest reduction in pain-related behavioural and physiological responses has been observed.” Of course all humans, regardless of age, will benefit from the power of touch. The Touch Research Institute is building a body of evidence to support this.
We are born into our mother arms and designed to be breastfed. All primates carry their young. All mammals groom and touch their young endlessly. If the mother and baby are separated predators are a significant risk. We often see on documentaries the relief the animals display when reunited and the mother grooms her offspring to reassure.
Modern birth and parenting practice has taken us away from the biological norm, separating baby and mother too much of the time. Endless adverts for the latest gadgets to make life easier for parents but without recognition of the importance of touch and oxytocin. However, there’s a growing tide of mothers, and fathers, reclaiming their instincts to parent in a responsive manner. Attachment parenting, as it is often called, goes back to the ways before bottles, cots and pushchairs. Babies are carried, breastfed, attended to when they cry, slept with... a lot of physical touch.
The Neuroscience of Touch
Scientific research is now showing how the brain responds to trauma, but books like When the Body Says No or The Body Keeps the Score are really awakening us to the ramifications of trauma. There’s a better understanding of the delicate dance of hormones. Oxytocin, endorphins, adrenaline, cortisol.... how too much cortisol and adrenaline affects the physical body. And how safe touch, a very light touch, can soothe and relax, bringing the mind and body back into balance again.
Too often, when I tell people I’m a massage therapist, they tell me they couldn’t possibly. They don’t ‘do touch’. Couldn’t let another person touch them. And it makes me wonder what has happened to them?
There’ll be a variety of reasons, I am sure. I have my own theories and opinions based on my own learning. I’m no research scientist or psychologist but there are many out there sharing the knowledge that shows us the importance of touch and attachment.
In modern western cultures we have moved away from touching babies to soothe and have used force to discipline. We have a society where it's expected that parents use formula and put their baby in another room to sleep. By limiting close interactions, by not always responding to their cry, it means that those babies can end up believing they are alone and stop crying to prevent predators hearing them. It’s a biological safety mechanism led by the hormones. They’re not ‘being good,' they’re trying to stay safe.
Unfortunately, for many children, growing up has been in abusive and/or neglectful situations. If touch meant being hit it’s no wonder people grow up unable to accept it. Even if it's safe touch.
We know that a frightened animal won’t let you touch it. We see on documentaries how, with time and patience, eventually the animal allows safe touch. We know that if we fall or stub our foot we often instinctively rub the injured area. We’re mammals. A particular species called Homo Sapiens but mammals nonetheless. And we need touch.
Barbara says I am an amazing client! I just allow the touch in. As she works my body is loose and limp. If she is doing a deeper or faster treatment I feel myself being moved around, my head lolling over to the side she is working on, my hips swaying over to the other side, my legs stretching down the table, my arms swinging over the side... it feels so wonderful to have relinquished control for the time I’m on the table. I don’t have to hold everything together. I can let someone else be in charge while I just let my mind and body replenish.
Breathe... feel... release!
Not all clients are like me on the table. Often a new client may feel very rigid as I work. Some take a long time, many sessions, to begin to relax. They build trust in the therapeutic relationship. They understand that this is a safe space to let go. They let go little by little. They come because they might have a physical, muscular pain or stiffness but are surprised when they feel a difference in their energy, or their emotions, or their mental well-being, or even on a spiritual level.
Massage is not just physical. It affects the whole of you, which includes the brain and all of the hormonal interactions it is part of. Sometimes this might feel a little scary, Iknow. Often people tell me they are afraid of having an emotional release on the table. After all we live in a culture where emotional repression seems too common. In particular we don’t expect men to show emotions such as sadness and little boys are told not to cry. However, there is growing awareness that this is harmful and many are discovering yoga, meditation, mindfulness or massage. Regular, consistent treatments are important for maintenance. We are continually experiencing the trials and tribulations of life. There’s no way I’d have coped with the last few years of my life without massage twice a month.
The massage table is a perfect place to be mindful. I will ask you to focus on your breath, to be aware of my touch and to let go of anything that no longer serves you.
How would you like to feel at the end of a massage?
If you are wary of touch, I will work with you to start slowly. Perhaps just working on the head, or feet. It may be that other therapies are more suitable to start with, to deal with trauma such as PTSD or birth trauma. I can offer The Rewind Technique to release trauma or perhaps I will signpost you on to a different therapist if your needs are not within my area of expertise.
Contact me now to book your therapeutic start to 2019.