Get Physical

Pat On the Back: What Human Touch Can Do For Anxiety

by Annie Behrens

Chest pains — that was this difference this time. Usually, my panic attacks happen when I’m trying to sleep or when I have the feeling of carpal tunnel in my left arm. There’s heavy breathing and room to cry. This time, however, I was leaving a Starbucks and my heart was racing and my chest hurt. It was tight and there was pressure. Though I had a rushed morning with unfortunate news the moment before I was supposed to head out the door, I thought, at 21 years old, that I was having a heart attack. A suspicion that’s not new but rather one that I have consistently been able to talk myself down from. I didn’t usually have these chest pains, though.

By some stroke of luck, I was leaving Starbucks to make my massage appointment at Chillhouse. I had already begun drafting this article when my panic attack started and got to test my theory with an albeit, friendly, stranger. Could calming, consensual, human touch calm me more than my own words?

I got to the appointment a few minutes early so I had time to tell Holly that I thought I was having a panic attack and time to tell myself that if I was still feeling the same post-massage, then I would head right on over Cedar Sinai. Sure enough, within 5 minutes of the massage, I was feeling better and almost positive that Holly had 10 hands (RUN, don’t walk to get one of these massages).

For a long time, a hug or a pat on the back meant acknowledging a feeling and giving room for a reaction. And for that long time, emotion really scared me. To go with out human touch, even as simple as a handshake, is detrimental to your health.

Freelance journalist, Lydia Morrish, attempted to deprive herself of human touch for a week. Succumbing to life’s natural impulses, she concludes that human touch is necessary. Even with a boyfriend who lovingly joked alongside her during the project, she felt tortured by the thought that she wouldn’t be able to touch him for another 24 hours. As she described it, it was like being in a “dystopian play” (who wants to write that with me?). She decided that affection, even in its simplest and smallest form is essential to a healthy life.

Michael Spezio, a psychologist at Scripps College, conducted a study on ‘The Power of Touch’ , considering it our forgotten language and possibly our most important one. At the forefront of every touch we receive or give, we consider who this person is and the environment that it’s happening, be it in the comfort of your home or at a loud restaurant. “The entire experience is affected by your social evaluation of the person touching you.” This belief connects itself with our fight, flight, or freeze reflexes if we’re in an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation.

Physical connection gives us insight into the the emotions of the person touching us. A strong bond between a child and its parents prove essential for their cognitive, emotional, and social development in the first two years of life. At infancy, it’s especially important to bond with ones child with skin to skin contact, as it can regulate a child’s cardiovascular and respiratory systems, relieve pain, and for the mother’s own health and sanity, it can keep the child from crying. Not be too brash, but I feel that it’s important to point out that Jeffrey Dahmer’s mother didn’t hold him as a child, and given his later occupation, we should make it a priority to snuggle with our kids.

Touch is our first language- it’s where we travel first in our journey of communication, but we don’t necessarily need to rely on someone else to embrace us. In our moments of great anxiety, we can find that strength in ourselves.

A common relief for anxiety is to ground yourself in the place you’re in at that time. We can utilize this sense to bring us back down from spiraling into anxiety driven oblivious. To do this, you can identify five things around you that you can touch- not just your phone or your coat! Feel the ground under your feet. Tap your feet to feel it and feel yourself land safely. If there’s a bench, take a seat. If there’s a tree, give it a hug. Let yourself feel the things around you so you can settle back into your own being and help your brain find its calm again.

My favorite way to remind myself that I am able to be there for myself is to bring my hands softly up to my chest, just below my collarbone. It’s called Meditation for a Calm Heart, a nurturing and mindful touch that releases oxytocin. Oxytocin is the chemical that’s released when you need to feel safe and secure, it’s the antidote to the stress hormone, cortisol. It is human emotional resilience.

Any touch focused on grounding your emotional wellbeing and spirit should be done out of concern and love for yourself. Physical affection from someone other than yourself should be based in consent and should make you feel safe. [Let it be known, however, no matter how much effort could be put into this exercise, some people just don’t like to be touched and for there that are many other treatments and exercises for anxiety that we can explore!] But, perhaps a hug could be restorative or a reset for the human spirit.

Feature Image via Daniela Spector

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