man hugging small boy

The importance of touch in psychotherapy work

In Health and Healing, Health and Nutrition by George GintilasLeave a Comment

George has been using touch in his therapy practice for over 25 years now. He says that its use could be stated as the hallmark of the somatic/body psychotherapy modality.
Body psychotherapy has been gaining a lot of attention and credibility in the last ten years as it has been proven to be very effective and excellent for healing two major problem areas:

  1. Physical trauma and what arises from this – high anxiety, panic attacks, fears, phobias.
  2. Childhood trauma and what arises from this – feelings of abandonment, neglect, emotional reactions, lack of confidence, depression and over weight.

Body psychotherapy is mindfulness-based and that in itself makes it a very strong and effective modality, but the ‘body’ in psychotherapy also refers to the aspect of touch.

Healing trauma is rapidly enhanced when appropriate touch is carefully incorporated into the treatment.

Why is this important, especially when most counselling, psychotherapies, all of psychiatry and all of psychology do not allow any touch whatsoever in treatment? How could they have it so wrong?

Healing physical trauma

The simple answer is that in fully healing the effects of a physical trauma (e.g., car accident, bad operation, bullying at school, physical abuse, sexual abuse, high impact fall, to name a few) we now know that the body reacts with the fight/flight/freeze response and, for that to thaw out and release, requires completing the movement for protectionthat didn’t happen at the time of the event. For that movement to release effectively, hands-on touch is often required to assist in that movement release to occur.

For the fight/flight – that often means helping the client with unfinished pushing, pulling, gripping or punching with the arms that couldn’t happen at the time to ‘save you’ from the trauma. Or unfinished flight – running, kicking, rolling, twisting, to ‘get away’ from the event.

Healing childhood trauma

The basic answer as to why touch is so effective with childhood trauma is that, without enough touch and attention, a baby or infant will die. There are some horror stories and cases in the past that have shown this to be the case. A child feels and understands a supporting caring touch much more than words, especially in the first five years of life when the intellect brain is not fully developed yet. In those initial years, touch is the key to growth and feelings of care, love and safety in the world. The tactile skin contact is what informs a child’s nervous system that all is well and the environment is safe and caring.

Often in sessions, one touch (usually gently holding a client’s hand) while they are accessing their inner wounded child) can produce enormous safety and relief and the feeling that someone is actually ‘here supporting and understanding me’, when there wasn’t at the actual time. One appropriate touch at such a point can replace the need for dozens of ‘talk therapy’ sessions.

There are many types of touch used in body psychotherapy. The type is determined by the intention behind the touch. (I can name up to eleven different types, but that’s for another article.)
I’ve trained all my closest friends to hug when we meet and hug again when we say goodbye, rather than just a handshake or verbal hello/goodbye. Touch is more real and present. It’s not a thought form. It’s the most fundamental need we all have from the day we are born. Your skin is the biggest organ of your entire body and the more loving touch it receives the more your whole body, inside and out, thrives.

George Gintilas is a somatic body (mindfulness-based) psychotherapist in private practice for 25 years. Based in Elwood, VIC, he covers a wide range of issues and specialises in trauma and PTSD.

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