Light touch is often used in craniosacral therapy and other forms of bodywork like osteopathy and whilst it can sometimes appear that not much is happening, if you were to observe a session, it is because the therapist is feeling far beneath what is visible to the eye.
The use of touch is important. Touch must be attuned, intelligent and offered in love. The body holds emotions and memories and our touch must be able to meet the body invoking a felt sense of it being understood and accepted. Often touch goes to a place that words just can't penetrate to. This is especially important for people who cannot verbalise their experiences. If someone has never been held because they lost their parents at a young age, or if a child lost their mother during childbirth, or if they have never felt safe in their skin because they have been ill since childhood then the use of therapeutic touch can be incredibly powerful.
The neurobiology of mechanoreceptive skin receptors and touch pathways is well known. Just under the skin are pressure receptors called Pacinian corpuscles. They receive pressure stimulation and the pressure receptors send a signal to the brain. The Pacinian corpuscles' signals go directly to an important nerve bundle deep in the brain called the vagus nerve.
The vagus sometimes is called "the wanderer" because it has branches that wander throughout the body to several internal organs, including the heart. And it's the vagus nerve that then slows the heart down and decreases blood pressure.
Touch also stimulate oxytocin which is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus and secreted from the pituitary gland. It promotes feelings of trust, connection and relaxation, affecting key emotional and social centres of the brain. It enhances the parasympathetic response of the body which counteracts the fight or flight reflex and increases heart rate variability, increasing vagal control, all of which are very necessary if a client's system is under high stress or sympathetic overstimulation. Oxytocin has been proposed as a possible treatment for social phobia, autism, and postpartum depression. Scientists have proposed that it might help improve interpersonal and individual wellbeing and neuropsychiatric conditions.
Touch is a way of communicating therapeutic presence. Presence is important for the therapeutic relationship and attuned and responsive touch can offer implicit safety in a realm where words cannot reach. There are many studies suggesting positive health effects of touch in therapeutic relationships (Whitcher and Fisher, 1979; Eaton et al., 1986; Monroe, 2009).
Touch is a way of discovering a person - you can sense how a person's body responds to touch whether it falls into a trust and opening or whether it backs away and starts to hide. You can feel, as they can do, how their tissues respond to being touched, to being influenced. Touch is a way of connecting - sometimes touch can bridge parts of the body that need to work together but have become separated or estranged, such as the head and the heart. It can sometimes be tricky for people who live in their head to acknowledge their heart and feel it, and touch can be used to bring attention to the sensations deeper within.
Touch can create safety. If a person's body and identity has become scattered and they do not have the necessary organising force within, using gentle touch can create containment and safety, boundaries within which the body can express itself and be witnessed. Touch can be a way of deepening awareness of particular parts of the body. This is especially important if those parts have been abandoned or if they hold a lot of emotion that needs to be integrated into the body. It can also help if there is buried pain.
Touch can be a way to recreate early, primal experiences of love. The love that is a felt sense, that knows no words and has no vocabulary. The love that is beyond the mind that allows the soul to rest.
Therapeutic touch must be appropriate, measured, personal, transparent, whole and loving. Touch must feel safe and that means it must be attuned and sensitive. As therapists we must be willing to communicate what we are doing at all times, especially with client's who are very sensitive and especially with children. We must at each stage of introducing touch, be willing to invoke our client's permission. Every part of the body holds intelligence and often, where the body has had substantial invasions, interventions etc, permission becomes even more important. Touch invokes a reaction in the body, it is an incredibly powerful tool, and we must therefore be willing to hold the reaction that comes. Furthermore, our touch must come from a place of full acceptance and heartfelt presence. The body invites us in to touch it, the organs invite us in to create space for them, we must watch for the invitation before we enter the space of the body. Watch the breath, feel the body responding, notice how holding patterns change, feel the throat and heart and stay in tune with how consent resonates in the body.
Some feedback from clients about craniosacral touch has been
'She has a very powerful touch and wonderful presence'
'I could feel the power almost straight away.'
'It feels safe and nurturing, with a beautiful open stillness.'
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