touch experiences

by – Kai, lead somatic sexologist

TOUCH is a potent form of human analgesia, and is involved in the most intimate forms of relationship bonding. Whether this is simply a hug, caressing or spooning a lover, to soothing an infant/child in pain. Touch is also used in therapeutic situations of massage and physiotherapy. Touch can be physically, emotionally and sexually nurturing, or pain relieving. We often forget that touch is innately learned. That is, we most likely to learn what touch feels like as we leave the birth canal and eventually placed skin-to-skin on our mother’s chest for the very first time. We might also have some form of awareness of touch in the womb with ourselves. Even though we cannot consciously recall the experiences. Our neural pathways start to form connections. Your brain and body begins to recognise touch experiences – these might be soothing or bothersome.

A recent study published in Current Biology looked at early life experiences in somatosensory processing of the infant human brain. Science Daily reviewed the study and highlighted the importance of gentle touch for infants. Researchers measured the brain activity of 125 infants. Brain responses were stronger when babies received gentle touch from parents and health care providers. They also found that babies subjected to painful medical procedures (with analgesia) are less likely to respond to gentle touch experiences. Painful experiences affected these babies. You could surmise these affects might follow well into their childhood and throughout their adult lives. The study reflects the importance of gentle touch in the normal sensory development of babies. It supports the prescription for positive-supportive touch in a (healthcare) Hospital setting.

“Touch is the most basic expression of human capacity to love, and it’s vital to our survival. As someone once wrote, “without touch, a baby dies, the human heart aches, and the soul withers.” Dr. Barnaby Barratt

What happens if you were denied or had limited soothing/caring touch as a child – how does this reflect later in life connecting in relationships? What happens if you received caring touch as a child but as an adult you don’t? What happens when partners overtime stop touching each other? What happens when you are (physically – emotionally) in pain or (mentally ill) and don’t receive touch? What about elderly people who are in care facilities? Those people who have disabilities?  What happens if you were sexually abused and your body and mind was not in consent to such touch – and now you have shut down?

Studies recognise the importance of touch earlier on in life for developing our mind and body. However, we also require somatosensory experiences throughout our adult lives. Without it, we can end up in situations of unease, emotional distress and physical pain.  In situations where touch has been devoid or used to inflict pain (emotional/physical) it’s important to reconnect your body and mind. Dr. Barnaby Barratt remind’s me that we “live in a culture that is touch-phobic, and it becomes a serious challenge – especially for those without regular partners-to touch and be touched”. I feel societies phobia stems from an engrained view that touch is predominately involved in intimate sexual acts – this is rather naïve. Touch needs to be viewed in context. Indeed, there are many types of touch ranging from professional touch, friendship/caring touch (holding hands/hugs), social touch (arm around shoulder/hug/hand shake) love and intimate forms of touch (close bonding touch, kiss on cheek, kiss on lips, holding/hug/caress), to sexual touch (touch genitals, breast, anus, body erotically).

Experiencing forms of touch requires you to be in consent in mind/body, and open to the experience. Often there is a complete fear of touch. Letting go of this fear as Dr. Barratt points out can alleviate forms of touch deprivation. Check out my article here about vulnerability.

Touch as a therapeutic tool for adults is often used in the domain of physical musculoskeletal injury – remedial massage. However current healthcare lacks the capacity to provide soothing and caring touch. Such touch is often needed in states of mind body distress. Bodywork is rather a somewhat radical idea which is gaining acceptance in health care and is prominent in the UK and USA. Bodywork allows for the safe provision of soothing and caring touch. If guided by an experienced touch professional such as myself bodywork can be a very powerful tool. For example, learning how to self-sooth and breathing into anxious states of mind allows you to be present in life and situations of unease.

Bodywork is a carefully planned consensual touch experience. Clients feel into their experience. Bodywork is guided by the client’s educational intentions. These experiences might include specific body touch or whole body touch.  Client prescribed touch is used for body awareness, to assist in healing and reduce pain. To alleviate physical symptoms. Reduce stress and anxiety. Express stored emotions/pain. Facilitate a shift from negative to positive emotions. Induce relaxation and a sense of peace/well-being. Positive, supportive and safe touch experiences in life are essential to everyone’s wellbeing. Without touch you can limit your self-awareness. Are unable to self sooth, or be soothed by others. You cannot feel into your body. You might lack the ability to move through altered states of mind.

If you are in Adelaide and interested in bodywork consider talking to myself. Please contact the Institute of Somatic Sexology to find a bodyworker interstate or overseas.

Hurwitz WL. Energy medicine. In: Micozzi MS editor(s). Fundamentals of complementary and alternative medicine. 2nd Edition. New York: Churchill Livingstone, 2001:238-56.
Barratt BB. Sexual Health and Erotic Freedom. 2005. United States of America.
Cell Press. “A prescription for touch: Early experiences shape preterm babies’ brains.” ScienceDaily . ScienceDaily, 16th March 2017. Link to article.