Isolation, Touch Deprivation, & Safety

Touch was never meant to be a luxury. It is a basic human need. It is an action that validates life and gives hope to both the receiver and the giver. The healing of touch is reciprocal.

-Irene Smith, massage therapist and educator

I recently had the opportunity to speak about oncology massage at the Chicago Gilda’s Club. It was a fantastic group of people who were really engaged in the topic; I hope they’ll let us come back and speak again sometime.

When I was preparing the slideshow (which we didn’t end up needing!), one of the points I mentioned was how isolated cancer patients can feel, and how many of them experience touch deprivation because their friends and loved ones are too scared of hurting them to touch them. These are huge issues in this population, but I think they are more widespread than we often admit.

Anyone who is familiar with Harry Harlow’s experiments on rhesus monkeys (which are rather upsetting to read about now, be warned if you decide to click this link) knows that touch is a fundamental human need. These experiments involve the subject doing the touching, rather than being touched, but they are still informative about the value of tactile stimulation. Other studies have demonstrated that touch-deprived babies don’t thrive or sometimes even survive. This newsletter has a big article on infants and touch written by two of my professional heroes: Ben Benjamin and Ruth Werner.

I don’t work with infants or children in my practice, but I don’t think that adults have lost the need for non-judgmental, non-sexual touch. I think that as busy as we are now, as connected as we are through our various electronic devices, many of us still experience feelings of isolation (with varying levels of intensity). Massage is arguably the true world’s oldest profession, and I think that speaks to our continuing and profound need for positive touch.

Massage therapy is also safe touch. Physically safe, because each session is modified for a client’s individual needs. Whether for lymph node removal, surgery, a muscle strain, etc., no one should be pushed beyond what their body can handle. It also provides emotional safety, because the client is able to set their own boundaries for the session. I instruct my clients to undress to their own level of comfort. For some this means they get fully undressed, for others it means they remove only their shoes, and there are many people somewhere in between. Clients get to dictate as much as they choose where I do and do not touch (the exceptions here should be obvious, but just in case- I don’t touch the genitals, ever).

I began this post with my very favorite quote about massage. It is so simple and it expresses so beautifully the truth that I have found so far in my work. I help my clients with various illnesses and injuries, even anxiety and insomnia. It is not a passive process though, we are communicating throughout and mostly without words. As they relax through my touch, I relax with them. Truly, I leave each session healed, renewed, and with a greater sense of connection to the world.

Please be respectful of the community. Offensive language and/or ad hominem attacks are unwelcome.

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