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Self-compassion: soothing touch helps us settle and relax

Touch can be profoundly soothing and settling.  In an intriguing study - "Nonverbal channel use in communication of emotion: how may depend on why" - researchers found that when participants generated displays of eleven different emotions, touch was the most preferred nonverbal way of showing love and sympathy.  Welcomed touch can be very good for us physically, so we know touch settles stress hormones - "Social touch modulates endogenous mu-opioid system activity in humans"  ( ), and can even reduce vulnerability to infections - see "Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness".  A whole series of studies show that touch can have very considerable psychological benefits as well ... note too that people will vary in how much they appreciate & benefit from touch for a variety of reasons, including genetic variation and psychological history ...

More to follow ...

Because soothing touch can be so helpful, it makes good sense to take a bit of time finding out what personally feels particularly useful for you.  We're all different.  Do experiment with the following ideas to see what works best for you. So this "touch exploration" exercise involves checking half a dozen potential ingredients - the location of the touch, the type of touch, whether you imagine the touch coming from someone else or not, seeing if adding in your name or other soothing words helps, potentially using a mirror, and possibly adding in deliberately settling breathing.  Take your time.  Maybe return to the touch exploration on several occasions to really get a sense of what suit you best.  Experiment with altering just one ingredient at once and see if using a 0 to 100 scale helps, with 0 representing "no sense of soothing or calming", and 100 representing "immense sense of soothing or calming".  Enjoy the exercise!

A.)  So with a gentle, caring intention and probably with eyes closed, place one or both hands on each of the following eight locations and sense which places feel best for you - 1.) one hand on your chest.  2.) both hands on your chest.  3.) one hand on your chest and one on your belly.  4.) one hand reaching across to press on the opposite forearm.  5.) reaching across with both hands to rub gently up & down the opposite upper arms.  6.) reach across with both hands to squeeze & hug your shoulders.  7.) cup one cheek with your hand.  8.) cup both cheeks with your hands.  If you think another location, that hasn't been mentioned, might suit you well, try that too.  Go over the different locations more than once, and see if using the 0 (no soothing) to 100 (immense soothing) scale helps you keep track of what works for you & what doesn't. 

It may well be helpful to note down your findings on a piece of paper.  Remember this caring touch can be useful in several different circumstances - and different hand placements may suit different circumstances.  So caring touch can be a good ingredient in a formal self-compassion meditation practice.  It can be part of a brief 2-3 minute breathing space mini-meditation.  And it can also be used during the ebb & flow of everyday life.  It may be that quite an obvious hand placement (like both on your chest or one on chest/one on belly) works well within a formal meditation environment, while something a bit less obvious (like one hand touching the opposite forearm, or both hands rubbing the opposite upper arms) may feel better in the busy-ness of everyday activities.  Experiment. Make a note.  What works well for you?

B.)  Type of touch.  Once you have locations that suit you well, explore what types of touch feel best in the different locations.  For example how firm or gentle seems good?  Is it nice to rub or circle with your hand?  Experiment; use the to 100 scale if it's useful; note down what works best for you.

C.)  Does imagining the touch coming from someone else help more or less?  Recent research shows imagined soothing touch from another person can certainly be useful - see, for example, "A sense of security: touch promotes state attachment security" and "Keep in touch: The effects of imagined touch support on stress and exploration".  The research highlights benefits with imagined touch (from a romantic partner or close friend) on psychological state (feeling calm, cared for, trusting), managing pain, and coping with social challenges.  One can explore who to bring into imagination - a partner, a close friend, a parent, a spiritual figure.  See if any of these works well for you.  You may find several do, but which type of touch feels most soothing may vary with the different figures that you bring into imagination.

D.)  Does adding your name or caring/encouraging words give additional benefits?  In loving relationships that you experienced maybe as a child or more recently, have there been forms of endearment, particular words, particular pet names or dimunitives that have been touching, soothing, settling for you?  Try them out.  Does adding a word, a phrase, or a sentence or two add something helpful and extra to the experience of using soothing touch?  If it does, make a note of it.  "Talking to ourselves" like this can help us step back and get more perspective ... see "Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters". 

E.)  This may seem a bit of a funny possibility, but research suggests that using a mirror may be helpful.  In a recent paper - "Compassion at the mirror: exposure to a mirror increases the efficacy of a self-compassion manipulation in enhancing soothing positive affect and heart rate variability" - it was reported "We tested whether a mirror could enhance the efficacy of a self-compassion manipulation in increasing soothing positive affect and heart rate variability (HRV).  Eighty-six participants generated four phrases they would use to soothe and encourage their best friend. Second, they described an episode where they criticized themselves and were assigned to one of three conditions: (a) repeat the four phrases to themselves while looking at the mirror; (b) repeat the four phrases to themselves without the mirror; (c) look at themselves in the mirror without repeating the phrases.  Participants in condition (a) reported higher levels of 'soothing' positive affect and HRV compared to participants in conditions (b) and (c).  The effect of the 'phrases at the mirror' manipulation on soothing affect was mediated by increased common humanity.  The mirror enhances the efficacy of this self-compassion manipulation in activating the soothing affect system connected with parasympathetic nervous system activity".   Intriguing!  Could be worth trying ...

 F.)  Deliberate use of breathing may also add benefit.  An obvious option is to imagine you're breathing in care, love, light, energy, wellbeing, and that as you breathe out you can spread this healing energy & care throughout your body, your nervous system, your mind.  You can make the breathing a bit slower and a bit deeper if this helps.  This can be very useful, especially when used in conjunction with other soothing touch ingredients.

More to follow ...



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