The Use of Touch for Healing Deep Old Wounds

This body is my very presence in the world, if it is the body alone that enables me to enter into relations with other presence’s, if without these eyes, this voice or these hands I would be unable to see, to taste and to touch things… or to be touched by them… if without this body… there would be no possibility of experience… then the body itself is THE true subject of experience.” Abram.

These days, many people talk about ‘being on a spiritual journey’… we ARE spirits, we have become form and dense matter,  have taken birth in this realm by assuming physical bodies as part of the soul’s experience in this human reality. We are all on ‘a human journey, a body journey!’ For your time on earth, it is the body that is the house of your soul, the body that is the crucible of your emotions and the body that is the vehicle for all you wish to be and express. It is the body that is the mysterious expression of the unknown and the unknowable, for as the Bible says  ‘God made man in his own image’. It is the body that is the instrument of the Divine presence here on Earth.

I never consciously sought to work in the helping professions ,I was happily  doing my thing as a university graduate in London in the 70’s when I stumbled across Reichian body work groups. I had been in therapy but found something was lacking, I didn’t know what. I soon discovered what it was… it was the body. I was hooked… something real was happening to me and my life changed forever. I studied the approach, qualified, and  have been working with bodies as a neo-Reichian body-psychotherapist and massage practitioner for over 25 years.

From the moment I first entered this field of experience until today I have never ceased to be amazed and awe-struck by the innate intelligence of the body.  Awe struck! I am humbled when I work with people, I have deep respect for the body, and that respect increases with time. Manifest existence is nothing short of miraculous! The body always knows what it needs if it is listened to in the sacred way that it deserves. You only need to consciously ask the body to relinquish its secrets and an awesome process will begin. Your body will tell you ALL that you need to know if you learn to interpret its signs and signals, its aches and pains, its dreams and its longings.

The body always knows what it needs if it is listened to in the sacred way that it deserves. You only need to consciously ask the body to relinquish its secrets and an awesome process will begin. Your body will tell you ALL that you need to know if you learn to interpret its signs and signals, its aches and pains, it’s dreams and its longings.

Everything that you have ever thought, touched, seen, heard, smelt or tasted has been carefully and exactly filed away in the conscious and unconscious recesses of the body-mind. (The body-mind being the intelligence of the body itself.) Everything has made an imprint or an impact somewhere, and is readily accessible and available in this the present moment.

Marcel Proust, the great French writer, knew this when he wrote about the immediate sense recall experience he had of his grandmother’s kitchen when he smelt Madeleine cakes baking years later and how that smell took him into an emotional release in the present.

The languages that the body uses to communicate with us are the languages of touch, feeling and movement, and for the purposes of this article I will focus mainly on the area of touch, and the innate emotionality of touch. It either feels good or it feels bad. Simple!

Nearly a century ago, William Reich, taught that we all hold all mental and emotional stress physically, to inhibit the sensation of pain, real or imagined, we manipulate our bodies through tightening our posture and holding our breathing. Back then Reich was one of the first pioneers to take the body and the language of the body into consideration. His aim was to free pent up life energy by getting people to express their repressed emotions physically either through bashing a mattress, through vigorous massage, through connected communication.etc. His word ”vegetotherapy” means any way of expressing the emotions “through the body”.

The theories of unconscious psychological defence mechanisms were already widespread, but Reich took it further, not only do we defend emotionally, but also we defend bodily. He used terms such as “character armour” to describe unconscious psychological defences and radically he coined a new phrase ”muscle armour” to describe what happens unconsciously physically to protect the body from real or perceived pain. He radically said, “muscle armour and character armour are inseparable and indivisible.”  He also added ”The reality of the musculature is that it is the somatic side of the process of repression and the basis for its continued existence,” also that ‘Every muscular rigidity contains the history and meaning of its origins”

“Character attitude may be resolved by dissolution of muscle armour and muscle armour by the dissolution of character peculiarities.” Until such times as both are dissolved free flowing life energy is inhibited and true relaxation is impossible.

Awareness of the intricate relationship between the physical body and the emotions enables us to see that the senses form a bridge between the two. Emotions elicited through the senses ideally should express outwards from the body, through to resolution and certainly relaxation should then follow. This unfortunately is not always the case.

According to the Gospel of Thomas, “That which needs to be expressed bring forth from yourselves.”  Or the old adage,  ”Better out than in!” If we don’t express emotions appropriately, that repressed energy transforms into symptoms, which disturb the energy balance both physical and emotional.

So, when the body can relax, tensions dissolve. Many bodies through fear and anxiety cannot relax. When someone has been abused physically, boundaries have been violated. Furthermore, if that abuse has happened during infancy and childhood, the impact of that boundary’s violation has imprinted deeply on body and psyche, both body and psyche have been hurt and invaded.

We all have boundaries to a lesser or greater degree, healthy boundaries are vital for healthy function.

We all have inner and outer boundaries. We have emotional boundaries and physical boundaries. Their function is to protect us from outside influences and to keep us safe. Boundaries need to be supported, honoured and maintained.

All traumas violate boundary structure. Where the body has been hurt, it is the body that needs to be healed! Simple! If you break your leg you need someone with skill to set it, if left unattended you will suffer long-term pain.  Similarly, if you have been sexually abused as a child that pain will be carried in the body until physical and emotional help releases you from the effects. Conventional counselling methods do not fully meet this need. Trauma is pain.Trauma is not a belief…. If you are raped in childhood, you don’t have a belief around that till later, (e.g. That happened because…) you have pain, cuts, hurt, bruises, bleeding, total confusion and lots of conflicting emotions and fears frozen in the body. The body needs to be thawed so that the life-energy may stream freely, all blockages dissolved.

If these incidents of sexual abuse are repeated many times, the entire energy structure is repeatedly disturbed. The body chronically contracts. Belief structures form about the total lack of control one has over ones own boundaries and ones own body. Attitudes, beliefs and postures then become the norm and one interacts with the world as if it is so! The mind, in turmoil, attempts to deal with it as best it can by disassociation from the body. This is inevitably problematic and unrealistic! YOU ARE YOUR BODY!  In an attempt to deal with the fact that deep shocks have registered and imprinted on the body, the mind often says “Do what you like to me, I’m numbing myself and going out of my body into a place that you will never reach.” Disassociation is often the victims only defiant defence and protection when little else could be done! I have heard this brave painful lament repeated so many times by so many survivors of sexual abuse.

The body that didn’t protect you becomes the enemy, the battleground, the source of pain and betrayal, the memory bank of all hurt and frustrations. Complications may start to emerge…   All manner of self harming and self abusing mechanisms, lack of self worth issues, emotional turmoil, trust and body image issues, relationship difficulties, sexual problems, depression etc. etc. not to mention physical symptoms… panic attacks, aches, pains etc. etc…  When you live in a triggered body, every advance towards it can trigger neurotic responses. Your whole relationship to touch and therefore to people in your world has been profoundly distorted… touch is super -threatening… Inter personal relationships, especially physical ones are usually fraught with difficulties and if they ever get off the ground in the first place, quickly deteriorate. Such a painful and very viscous circle…

How one may ask can such deep wounds ever be healed?  Conventional counselling, psychotherapy, emotional bodywork and so on,  may all have a part to play, but I believe the deepest  healing will only take place when skilful and conscious intervention using physical boundary work and touch are integral components of the healing process.

In traditional psychotherapy, touch has long been a taboo. Touch more than any other interaction has been abused.  There is much fear around touch. There is much fear around the body. There is much fear around sexuality. Sexuality and touch have become synonymous. There is much fear… There is often much confusion in these areas for the therapist themselves. So, it becomes safer to avoid these areas altogether.

Touch does not just evoke sexual feelings! Although many are caught within that limitation. It is far more subtle than just that! It evokes a vaster range of emotions. Touch is an emotion as well as a sensation. There is much to be learned from non-sexual physical contact. As a language it’s poorly taught in the West. ….

Over the years, I have heard of many incidents where sexual abuse survivors seek out some kind of touch therapy such as massage, reiki, reflexology etc.because they think that it could be a useful part of their healing… Only to be disappointed… In many cases the simple act of lying down, let alone being touched is provocation enough. Lack of skill on the part of the practitioner can reinforce the disassociation from the body…The client themselves may not realise that they are once again simply letting someone else do something to them. Many have freaked out, had huge catharses on massage couches where neither they nor the therapist has had the means to understand what was going on… Once again confusion all round!

The skill, awareness and self-knowledge of the therapist are of utmost importance.

What do I do? How do I actually put this into practice?

Before any touch occurs the preliminary phase of re-establishing boundaries needs to take place. This may go reasonably quickly in a few sessions, or may take several weeks or even months depending on this severity of the abuse. In one extreme case it took nearly 3 years. We work with all the emotions as they arise

We need to experiment and ascertain what it means to feel safe. This varies enormously person to person. The room needs to feel safe. The client may need to check that the door is locked or even put something in front of the door. Initially I work with  ‘safe distances between’. We work to establish ‘safe body posture’. We work in many ways before I actually approach and touch the client physically. It reminds me of the film The Horse Whisperer only I do it with people! What doesn’t feel safe and what does feels safe? The body knows these things innately even if they can’t be intellectually articulated. I read and re read the body, picking up clues and piecing the bits together. What is safe? What is not?  This is my intoned mantra… Safe or not? Safe or not? Sitting? Walking? Eyes shut? Eyes open? Facing the wall? Facing me? Always working with communication… You tell me… you lead the dance… I will follow… I will not leave… I am right there listening to your body. I am watching and listening. I am with you. You are safe. Everything needs to be made very safe. A sense of safety is a key component of this work. Once accomplished, progress is inevitable. As this work consciously progresses, and the client feels affirmed, is taking control, is re-patterning and reclaiming their space, the idea of actually touching the client becomes more possible.

Then comes the actual touch phase. With mindful, consciously directed, intentional touch, smashed and violated boundaries can be repaired and restructured. Therapist and client work as a team. It takes patience, insight and compassion to get someone back in their body. Rebuilding trust can be a slow painstaking process… The most important aspect here is ‘permission to touch’, that may be implicit but it needs to be articulated somehow either by the client consciously taking my hand and placing it safely on their body or by actually saying such words as  ‘I allow, or yes you can touch me’ whatever the appropriate words are for them, we use. This can be a very pivotal moment in the work. If the ground work has been well established by this time there will be much trust. The client themselves takes control and figures out what is safe and what is not, what is acceptable and what is not. A new language of trust, being heard and  being listened to, needs to be learnt. (I deliberately don’t say ‘relearnt’ because in many cases it wasn’t there in the first place, especially if the client was very young during the abuse.)

I deliberately and gently intone new mantras:  ‘ Where shall I touch you? How will I touch you? Does this feel ok? Does that feel ok? Which is better? This or that? What  feels right ?Do you want to stop? Is this getting too much? Say  ‘Stop ‘ or push my hand away if that’s what you need to do? You are the boss! Do you need a break? How is this feeling? The mantras go on and on. Repetition after repetition. The hands listen. The eyes read the body signals. The body and the breathing lead the dance. Together we move skilfully through the past hurts in time and space …leading,…following…wherever the now flowing energy dictates.

It takes patience like meditation always does! Patiently, together we heal what needs to be healed. Initially the work is done fully clothed . Massage comes later. The client’s body is honoured and eventually celebrated. There is no touching the genital area other than by the client themselves and then  it is always through clothes.

I may give homework exercises that can be done alone or if the client is in a relationship, done together.

We build up a  body-map of safe areas, often first drawn on paper, then  experienced through the  ever present body. I encourage dialogue with different body areas to learn what they need, and I trust the innate wisdom of the words that emerge  to guide us on our travels.  The body IS the map AND the  body is the guide. Both!  This  journey  is one of courage and trust for the client. It’s an astonishingly transformational journey. There is no going back!  THIS IS IT!.. Yes! Yes! We journey together. Sometimes slowly. Sometimes fast. It’s very exciting!

Where touch has been terror, touch can become tender. Many survivors of childhood sexual abuse simply have no words to describe “sensitive” touch. They don’t know it. For many, All they knew was pain and confusion.  So a new “feeling vocabulary” needs to be imprinted and a re- patterning of feeling and sensation e.g. soft, loving, gentle, soothing, comforting etc.  needs to be experienced in order to  replace the old sensations of ”rough, pain, hurt, sore harsh etc.”.

Where space and distance have not been honoured or respected, assertiveness needs to be learnt.  Where hands haven’t listened, hands can be directed. Where power was stripped away, power is taken back. With control comes self worth and old redundant  belief structures are jettisoned in favour of new more positive ones . A new sense of  self and direction  emerge. The hitherto bound and contracted survivor starts to stretch their wings. Flying becomes a distinct possibility…

In the past, trust was betrayed. In the present, trust can be lovingly rebuilt through the touch of hands truly rooted in an insightful and compassionate heart.

I have worked in this way with touch for a long time now.  I see bodies long wracked with pains, fears and anxieties drop burdens of tension and start to breathe again. Bodies start to move, sing, dance, express, create, laugh, cry, hug…embrace life, experience and express love.

The power of touch on the body is truly awesome. Negative touch destroys lives. Positive touch helps us live lovingly. Touch connects when words don’t. Touch heals the past pains of the body.Touch is our nourishment, food for the soul. When the body relaxes the life-energy flows through all the levels of our being and we feel connected to The Divine within and without :

‘This very body… the Buddha !’

To conclude, over the years, touching others has been and still is a central part of my Path of the Heart. It is part of my spiritual discipline. I learn so much. I learn the noble art of giving and the noble art of receiving; I learn how to serve The Divine in each body I meet. I learn how to accept and to be non-judgmental, how to be patient and to listen, how to stay open, how to be present, how to be compassionate. I am grateful to the teachings of touch. For these things I thank all the bodies I have had the privilege of touching. May all bodies be happy. May all bodies be healed. May all bodies live in peace and love.