Using touch as critical communication

Over the last 30 years, I have used touch to facilitate physical change in my patients. Because of my special interest in the importance of touch in every aspect of our lives, I have witnessed how much touch communicates a steady supportive presence when no words are helpful or to be found.

I recently heard a story from war surgeon David Nott on BBC’s Private Passions. Following a mission in Syria, where he witnessed extreme trauma, Dr. Nott was invited to lunch with Queen Elizabeth. The Queen asked him what it was like there. He found himself speechless, with lips quivering, and about to panic. He “had just seen too much,” is how he described it in the interview. The Queen reached out with her hand and touched his.

This moved me, as despite all of the rules of royalty, The Queen recruited touch as the great equalizer and the perfect resource for overwhelming emotion. At that moment, touch was needed more than anything else.

Currently, I’m reading The Choice, by Dr. Edith Eger, a psychologist and Holocaust survivor who talks about changing our mindsets and embracing the possible. At 16, she was sent to Auschwitz. Despite the unimaginable horrors, she shares her journey of healing. In the book, she recalls one moment that really captured my attention.

After being liberated from the camps and the end of the war, she and her sister traveled back to their hometown in Hungry. Aboard a crowded train of other Jewish survivors, all displaced from the terrors they had lived through, Dr. Eger and her sister sat next to a young man. As they leaned against one another, Dr. Eger recalls that “he caresses [her] sister’s fingers with his own, his fingers barely more than bones.” They do not ask one another where they have been. The touch does all the talking. They connect, understand, start to heal, and share compassion.

In my CranioSacral Therapy practice, I have seen how touch provides the access point to the information that one needs to help resolve the cause of the pain in the body. Sometimes there are words the client shares, while other times the underlying conversation happens through touch. An affirming sound is often enough.

As a mother, I have noticed how touch comforts a sad child. It can be the only form of “conversation” when a child does not want to talk. This is especially true in infancy when our children are non-verbal. How we hold and cradle our babies is the primary communication. When we encourage a young child to explore new movements, like learning how to roll, sit, and stand, the support comes from a balanced dosage of physical touch. For example, oftentimes we sit them up and then very gradually take away our hands to allow the baby to experiment with which muscles to engage and coordinate while they learn to sit independently.

As we journey through the circle of life and we start to lose our physical independence, we want to support our loved ones enough so that they know they are safe without removing independence too early or before they are ready. Our touch can convey caring and support while not smothering or belittling our loved one who is losing physical or cognitive independence. People in the more advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease lose their verbal communication. Touch can help bridge that gap with connection and intimacy. Just the other day a friend shared with me how she laid down with her husband who has advanced stage Alzheimers and just held him. While they were lying together, she welled up with emotion. At the same time, she noticed tears rolling down her husband’s face.

There is a back and forth conversation that happens through touch as well as the more obvious verbal conversation. Additionally, as we have seen, there are times when there is no conversation. Yet there is power from the absence of words.

When there is less verbal dialogue happening, one of the nuances that come into play is the consent of touch. You may recall instances where you communicated or someone communicated to you that touch did not feel good. Young children are very good at letting you know when they feel constrained or they need to be held a little firmer; often through nonverbal communication. And thus, touch can act as a powerful communicator and surpass all words in critical situations.

So tell me — when is a time that you let touch do the talking? How has touch comforted you in a time of distress or challenge?

Author 📚 speaker 🔈 peer support 🤗 🙏🏻PT specializing in Craniosacral Therapy 🙌🏽 co-founder @touchadvocates