Recent research on the healing powers of touch and why it matters to healing from trauma.
Client experiences on the table
In the last month I’ve gotten a few new clients, all who came in because they had heard about somatic therapy and/or co-regulating touch.
With new clients, I can forget how delightful, amazing, curious and heart-warming it is be with them as they discover themselves in a new way, as they discover the universe inside themselves known as their body.
Coregulating Touch (CRT), a form of therapeutic touch, opens portals into the body where clients can enter and begin their exploration of self from the inside out and from the bottom up. More importantly, coregulating touch opens portals into the body through pleasant sensations.
It’s like being held, I feel surprisingly comforted.
I feel like I can finally exhale.
It’s weird to feel how relaxed my body is. I thought I knew what calm and relaxed were until I felt this.
Did I just fall asleep? (Yes, you fell into a deep rest state.) I NEVER just fall asleep like that.
These are just a few of the comments that I’ve heard from clients new to the experience of coregulating touch. Pretty cool, right?
Eventually, clients start to ask, how does CRT work?
From the outside, it looks like I’m doing nothing but sitting next to my client lying on the table while I’ve got my hand under their back near their kidneys or cradling their head in my hands. Unlike a massage therapist, I’m not moving my hands nor trying to manipulate the body.
And yet, how to explain why coregulating touch works not only to increase pleasant sensations in the body but also to support deep, physiological and psychological healing?
The Power of “Pleasant Touch”
Zhou-Feng Chen, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Itch & Sensory Disorders at Washington University states, “Pleasant touch sensation is very important in all mammals. A major way babies are nurtured is through touch. Holding the hand of a dying person is a very powerful, comforting force. Animals groom each other. People hug and shake hands. Massage therapy reduces pain and stress and can provide benefits for patients with psychiatric disorders. “
Dr. Chen and his team experimented with mice and were able to identify a specific neural circuit and neuropeptide responsible for relaying the sensation of pleasant touch from the skin to the brain.
“This is important because now that we know which neuropeptide and receptor transmit only pleasant touch sensations, it may be possible to enhance pleasant touch signals without interfering with other circuits, which is crucial because pleasant touch boosts several hormones in the brain that are essential for social interactions and mental health,” he explained.
I encourage you to read that last bit again:
Pleasant touch boosts several hormones in the brain that are essential for social interactions and mental health.
As it turns out, receiving attuned and supportive touch, or pleasant touch, has strong, measurable and physiological positive consequences in the brain and the body!
Dr. Chen wrote, “pleasant touch provides emotional and psychological support that helps mitigate social isolation and stress. These findings may have important implications for elucidating mechanisms by which pleasant touch deprivation contributes to social avoidance behavior and mental disorders.”
Childhood Trauma, Touch and Embodying Safety
Interestingly, “the researchers found that mice lacking pleasant touch sensation from birth had more severe stress responses and exhibited greater social avoidance behavior than mice whose pleasant touch response was blocked in adulthood.”
In my world of working with clients who experienced childhood trauma, this particular finding highlights the importance of nurturing touch and attunement in our very early years of life, ages 0-5. Without nurturing touch and positive emotional attunement in those early years, those children are more likely to grow into adults who struggle with anxiety, depression, social isolation and struggles to maintain healthy relationships.
So, when my clients lay down on my massage table for coregulating touch, their nervous system and body gets to experience real, palpable relief: a release of long held constriction patterns in their body. This is the beginning of embodying safety (vs danger) in their nervous system.
Here’s how clients have described an embodied sense of safety in their life:
- “I’ve found a new level of groundedness. I noticed that I’m naturally standing taller.”
- “Instead of feeling frustrated or impatient with my kids, I was able to see their distress and offer them a hug.”
- “My breathing just feels easier overall.”
- “I can now feel more and more spontaneous joy.”
- “I trust my body now. It’s not the enemy.”
As the power of coregulating touch shifts a client from living in “danger” or survival physiology to safety/thriving physiology, here’s just a few examples of what I hear about:
- Healthier boundary setting and keeping
- Less self-abandonment in the form of people pleasing
- More self-confidence, self-trust and self-compassion
- Easier return to feeling grounded after an upset
- Increased sense of meaningful connectedness in relationships
The power of pleasant touch, touch that has no demands, is not sexual in nature, is deeply attuned, and has intentions of care and support, is nothing short of MIRACULOUS!
What I want you, Dear Reader, to hear is that if you’ve experienced early trauma or traumatic experiences in general and you’re struggling:
YOU DON’T HAVE TO KEEP STRUGGLING.
Trauma doesn’t have to be a life sentence and there are healing modalities out there that can help you reclaim your life and create a life worth living!
For those of you who may fall into the category of surviving early trauma, here are a few questions for your reflection:
- What does feeling safe mean to you?
- What is your first memory of feeling safe?
- How might you describe feeling safe in your body?
- What helps you to feel safe? A person, place or thing? An experience? Doing something?
There is so much love for you here!
Here at Somatic Therapy Partners, we are a group of clinicians who are both somatically trained and therapeutically touch trained. We specialize in treating early trauma, complex trauma and anxiety. Reach out and see how we may serve you on your healing path.
Thank you for reading. Thank you for wanting to heal. And whatever your next step is on the path of healing, thank you for that too!