Touch in Psychotherapy
The use of touch in psychotherapy for the repair of early attachment ruptures and trauma resolution is not new. Competent and ethical psychotherapists have used intentional physical contact since the early 1930’s. What is new is that there is current neurobiological data that supports the efficacy for the use of touch for the resolution of pre-verbal relational trauma.
Clinically intentional touch in psychotherapy has been implemented by bodyworkers and psychotherapists. Kathy Kain has taught the use of touch to trauma therapists for two decades within the context of somatic experiencing. Her approach is to address the dysregulation of the client’s neurophysiology by focusing on “developing tactile skills, somatic awareness, and other touch-related skills in the context of working with the resolution of trauma.” Working directly on bodily systems has the effect of healing emotional wounds.
An approach from a psychotherapy scope of practice is taught by Aline LaPierre. Her psychobiological approach integrates the key elements of developmental theory and somatic psychotherapy. By highlighting the importance of the body and emphasizing its relations with the mind, the skillful use of touch can address developmental deficits and resolve traumas that cannot be reached by verbal means alone.
Psychotherapists trained in the use of touch bring additional skills to the therapeutic relationship. By directly connecting with our clients, the skillful use of touch aims to:
- Nurture developmental deficits
- Encourage new neurological connections
- Elicit dormant impulses
- Reduce hyper-activation
- Calm vigilance
- Release dysfunctional somatic patterns
- Renegotiate family trauma
Because language is not yet “online” in the brain of an infant, physical contact addresses the effects of the earliest breaches in nurturing, attunement and safety that cannot be reached by language alone. Loving, respectful touch is essential to healthy growth and development, whereas lack of touch is so damaging it can even impair the desire to live. Touch is at the foundation of our relational experience; it is a fundamental mode of infant-caregiver interaction. What happens during our early development establishes the template for our capacity for connection with ourselves, our loved ones and particularly our intimate adult relationships.
The Ethics of Touch in Psychotherapy
The following video with Dr. Ofer Zur from the Zur Institute specifically addresses questions of ethics and boundaries for the use of touch in psychotherapy.
The Skillful use of Touch in Psychotherapy
Integrating touch helps practitioners develop solid skills for somatic interventions in clinical practice. Six to ten million sensory receptors form an intricate network that connects the entire body to the brain via the nervous system. When a clinician skillfully uses touch they engage these receptors to guide a client’s attention inward to their interoceptive experience—chronic bracing and collapse patterns, organ vibrations and energetic sensitivities—and help bring awareness to these internal experiences. The skillful use of touch engages the felt-sense in a dialogue that leads to a felt-self emotional integration. In the work of the repair of the self, which spans all developmental stages, it directly addresses dissociation, dysregulation and states of self-fragmentation that interfere with the capacity for self-awareness and self-regulation.
Through physical contact with the body, it is possible to “tune in” to the inherent motion within, establishing a direct physiological rapport between the therapist and client. Using touch helps make sense of a client’s fine neural signaling and tracks signals in the different systems (skeletal, ligamentous, muscular, visceral, endocrine, nervous, fluid and fascia) as they operate to restore systemic regulation. The skillful use of touch integrates the fundamentals of relational somatic psychotherapy with current neuroscience research to enable psychotherapists to knowledgeably and skillfully support their clients capacity to heal the earliest developmental traumas.