Why We All Need to Touch and Be Touched
Our mind, brain, and body are not separate from each other.
Posted September 11, 2013 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Being touched and touching someone else are fundamental modes of human interaction, and increasingly, many people are seeking out their own "professional touchers" and body arts teachers—chiropractors, physical therapists, Gestalt therapists, Rolfers, the Alexander-technique and Feldenkrais people, massage therapists, martial arts and T'ai Chi Ch'uan instructors. And some even wait in physicians’ offices for a physical examination for ailments that have no organic cause—they wait to be touched.
The body-oriented approaches are based on a principle that is becoming more obvious to researchers. Ken Wilbur wrote in The Spectrum of Consciousness, "For every mental 'problem' or 'knot,' there is a corresponding bodily 'knot;' and vice versa since, in fact, the body and the mind are not two. That is, psychic conflict, guilt, shame, unresolved grief all can be lodged in the body as body memories, and when the site of the psychic difficulty is deeply touched through massage or other manipulation, it can not only release the physical pain but may make the psychic pain accessible.
Soon after my mother died, I developed a case of “frozen shoulder." It causes stiffness and pain in the shoulder joint and often occurs for no known reason.
My doctor had told me that because my shoulder was "frozen," there must be adhesions or scar tissue that were freezing up my shoulder joint. And probably my body lacked something called synovial fluid, needed to lubricate the shoulder joint. I asked him what.
He could not tell me what caused this to happen because medicine does not really understand why. I like to understand why things happen the way they do and he could not tell me. But I was in pain. I could not sleep in the usual position I sleep in, I couldn’t reach for something on a shelf without feeling pain. He referred me for physical therapy and so I made an appointment.
As I lay on the examining table, the physical therapist came in, smiled, introduced herself, and explained what she was going to do. As soon as she put her warm hands on my bare shoulder, tears welled up in my eyes. I was surprised and embarrassed and turned my head away from her gaze so that she would not see. I suspect she noticed.
She continued examining me and I relaxed and found that I enjoyed it. It felt like a massage, something I am not used to having. She recommended that I come in three times a week and I had to arrange my schedule to do that. She did various exercises with me that I was advised to do at home.
As I followed her instructions, I thought and felt a great deal about my mother, with whom I had a complex and ambivalent relationship. I stretched and cried, cried and stretched, wrote about what I was feeling, and after a few months I was better. The pain of my loss had lodged itself in my body, and a woman’s warm touch started to release it. It also probably released some oxytocin in me, the hormone of love and attachment.
As I mourned her loss over several months, I realized something. I had had a hard time crying for my mother, whom I loved very much but whom I was angry with too. When there are difficulties in mourning a loss, somatic or psychological difficulties may present themselves. The body speaks when we do not have words for what we are feeling. The therapist’s warm touch on my shoulder was lubrication for my soul, needed for me to let go and feel the loss, complicated and ambivalent as it was.
Treatment that uses direct touch can have a depth and potency that can have a great therapeutic impact, which provides some explanation for why so many people are seeking out their own "professional touchers" or are filling the waiting rooms of physicians, waiting for the doctor to find the cause of the pain and make them better. In the process, they are touched.
When the patient is assured that the work of the professional toucher is free from infringement, that sexual contact is clearly out of bounds, and that the patient can say "no" to any intervention the body-work practioner proposes, then the patient can have the experience of trust and physical touch in the context of a controlled respectful relationship.
Nature is so intelligent for creating oxytocin, the hormone of love and attachment. Kerstin Uvnas Moberg became a world authority on oxytocin through her personal experience.
When she was pregnant, delivered, and nursed her four children, she was struck by feeling a state of mind so different from the stress she was used to in connection with life’s other challenges. Wanting to understand this scientifically, she learned that there is a key biological marker—oxytocin—that can explain this sense of calm and connectedness in pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing, and through this research, discovered that oxytocin is able to influence many vital operations in the body.
Her research showed that the level of oxytocin in the blood during nursing was correlated with the mothers’ subjective experiences of calmness, and ability to interact with their babies. Oxytocin stimulates growth during pregnancy and stimulates the uterus to expel the newborn. It restores the balance between stress and calm. It stimulates the muscle activity of orgasm (in both men and women) and can strengthen the attachment bond. We are told that “oxytocin is with us throughout our lives.”
She wrote, "When you were born, oxytocin helped expel you from your mother’s womb and made it possible for her to nurse you. As a small child, you enjoyed your mother’s and father’s loving touch because it released oxytocin in your body. As an adult, you experience the effects of oxytocin when you enjoy good food, or a massage, or an intimate interlude with your romantic partner (Uvnas Moberg 2003, p. 65)."
If you’d like to learn more about oxytocin, read Uvnas Moberg’s book, The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love, and Healing.
When people lack love and touch in their lives this can result in bodily self-harm, such as in eating disorders or self-mutilation. If you’d like to learn more about this and about “professional touchers," read my book, When the Body Is the Target: Self-Harm, Pain, and Traumatic Attachments.