Yes, Physical Touch Can Ease Pain & Trauma — But Not All Touch Is Helpful

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two caucausian hands, clasped

We all know that having a shoulder to cry on and a hand to hold in times of need is vital to foster a sense of security and mitigate loneliness.  

But it can also have important long-term benefits, and science is able to back up what many of us have known in our gut or have been taught through generational wisdom: physical touch can help with pain in certain circumstances.

While it may not solve all of your problems in the moment, physical touch does have a role to play in how your mind processes pain over time. 

That said, physical touch is a broad term and is something each of us has a different relationship with. This tension makes prescribing physical touch during emotional pain complicated and rife with nuance. After all, not all touch is the same.

To explore the role of physical touch in trauma processing, we spoke to relationship coach and therapist Lisa Hawkins and examined some of the research around the value of touch in therapy.  

Physical touch won’t have an immediate impact on emotional distress. 

Research into how physical touch mitigates emotional trauma is not extensive and it is consistently complicated by the reality that emotional pain is experienced differently by everyone. 

Hawkins reaffirms this: “What I can say is that it depends on the person. It also depends on the extent of the trauma being expressed.”

She tells us that individuals likely won’t benefit from unwanted physical contact, even if it is well intended. “It depends on their overall desire for touch," says Hawkins.

Some specific trauma survivors may even reject physical touch entirely or react to it in a way that is ultimately damaging. 

“Often during the expression of negative events or trauma touch might not be welcomed,” Hawkins tells us. “After the processing of the trauma the person would feel compassion and support with touch, if touch is soothing to them.”

Hawkins’s perspective is in line with the limited research on the role of physical touch in trauma recovery. One recent study found that physical touch does not immediately reduce emotional pain but can have a lasting impact after the initial painful event. 

The same study that cited no immediate effect of physical touch on emotional pain, found the opposite to be true over an extended period of time. 

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Hand holding can aid emotional pain in the long-run.

The study examines 60 university-aged couples by splitting them into the roles of storytellers and listeners. 

In the first lab session, storytellers were asked to share 2 neutral stories from their past and 2 stories that involved betrayal or loss. These stories were filmed and storytellers then recorded their emotional reaction to the stories they told on a scale of 1 to 10 based on how hurt, sad or angry they felt. 

In a second lab session one week later, storytellers returned with their partners. Together they watched the video and were instructed to either hold hands with their partner or squeeze a stress ball. 

Then, storytellers recorded their emotional reactions to watching the videos again and rated how comforted they felt by either their partner’s touch or the stress ball. 

After holding hands, there was no immediate improvement in how they rated their emotional reaction to the stories. 

However, in a follow-up survey 1 to 7 months after the lab tests, storytellers who held hands reported decreased levels of emotional pain about the stories they told.  

In brief, the study implies increased feelings of safety associated with physical touch allow for a less challenging acceptance of emotional pain over time.

Hawkins tells us she agrees largely with the study and has found, through her work, that physical comfort can offer a sense of long-term security. But she acknowledges that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach to trauma recovery. 

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Physical touch can stifle the processing of emotions for some. 

Hawkins tells us that how the brain recognizes and responds to physical touch depends on many extraneous factors and varies from person to person. 

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Past traumas or emotional hurdles that involved physical touch can completely alter a person’s relationship with something as simple as hand-holding. 

“To say the brain processes physical touch in a certain way depends on the person,” Hawkins says. “It can connect it to a feeling of emotional security and it also may connect it to trauma or abandonment.”

She also acknowledges that we must be aware of nuances in the neurology of individuals. 

“Someone that is neurodivergent might not find physical touch soothing but rather irritating and unwelcome,” Hawkins notes. 

This is quite common for those on the autism spectrum who can feel overwhelmed or attacked when others try to make physical contact with them. 

But Hawkins also makes an important distinction between feeling comforted by physical touch and becoming over dependant on it for emotional wellness. Over-reliance on contact with a partner for emotional comfort can unwittingly breed a codependent relationship. 

“Reliance on physical touch, in my experience, can inhibit the processing of the intense emotions,” says Hawkins, who suggests we strike a balance between physical and non-physical comfort. 

“Supporting that person verbally or even being compassionate in our nonverbal communication can be beneficial to that person,” she concludes. “It’s helpful to ask the person what they need to feel supported, most especially in reliving a negative event. Don’t assume touch is ok.”

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment.