Touch: Physical Contact Can Speed Your Eating Disorder Recovery



Touch has healing power

Power of touch" "We need four hugs a day for survival.  We need eight hugs a day for maintenance.  We need twelve hugs a day for growth."  Virginia Satir

Are you eating or exercising too much out of touch deprivation? Do you sink into a recliner or couch with comforting food to console your body? 

Think about it.  Loneliness and a sense of isolation exists when you suffer from an eating disorder.  Bingeing on food or obsessing on being as small as possible by not eating are ways of addressing a deprivation.  One of your deprivations could be skin on skin experiences.      *photo

Touch Sensation: Skin on Skin

I'm not talking about sex or sexual contact.  In our sex obsessed and sex phobic culture that has to be stated up front.  Plus, in an eating disordered life, a person of any gender  can have sex without feeling touched at all.

I'm talking about flesh to flesh human skin contact that communicates emotion or simply acknowledges that both people are humans in the flesh. Touch acknowledges the genuine presence of both and conveys a sense of who they are to each other and themselves  You are both more present and real in this world when you touch and are aware of the experience. (I add this because if you have an eating disorder you can "zone out" during a touch and be unaware of your experience.)

What Touch is Permitted?

So how do we physically contact each other in this phobic culture? Shaking hands seems to have gone out of style. But it can be brought back.  Certainly, kissing a woman's hand as a form of greeting isn't done anymore. But what about a hand on a shoulder or a pat on the back?

Is that allowed or is such contact loaded with negative connotations? Then there's standing on a crowded bus or sitting in a crowded booth or waiting in a crowded line. Accidental touch happens. Is it acceptable? Do you pull away?

What about hugs with friends? In Europe women friends often walk hand in hand.  Can we do that comfortably in the United States?

Benefits of Touch

To get technical, simple touch can lower blood pressure and cortisol levels. A daily twenty second hug increases oxytocin levels in the brain. Heart disease risk lowers. (Matthew Hertenstein, PhD, director of the Touch and Emotion Lab at DePauw University).

"Touching someone while apologizing helps build a connection ...and can help ease a person's irritation in the moment." (neuroscientist Michele Noonan, PhD.)  And, of course, since you are in connection too, your discomfort decreases too. You feel each other's humanity.

See: "The Power Of Touch: How Physical Contact Can Improve Your Health," 

We need physical human connection. Infants die without it.(marasmus) Deprivation of human touch contributes greatly to overeating, self-destructive habits, sexual abuse. Touch deprivation creates a sense of feeling alienated from ourselves and isolated from other people.  The results are boredom, sexual dysfunction, unsatisfying relationships, and fear of intimacy.

See: "Wellness is a Choice: need for touch" 

I'm not talking about sexual seduction or needy grasping.  I'm talking about incorporating ways of being physically in contact with others throughout your day to get your needed  4, 8, 12 hugs a day as Satir suggests.

Ways of touching and being touched to enhance your life

If you have children in your life, adopted or not, they thrive on hugs, cuddles and snuggles. And you will too. Be generous with your attention and physicality.  A light caress on the head on tender little squeeze on the shoulder as you pass by them doing homework, watching TV, working on a project counts. That counts for adults too. See: "The importance of Loving Touch to develop a bond with an adopted child"  by Gill Tree, 

Explore platonic, non sexual and restorative touching opportunities in your life.

Social dancing is a great place for touch: Try dance classes, clubs, community centers.  A five minute dance gives you a range of touch and sensory awareness that includes sharing rhythm, leading, play and both gentle and firm body communication with hands and shoulders.  Even mistakes where someone gets a foot stepped on and the apologies that ensure are part of the physical connections we need.

See: J.R. Bruns, M.D. article, "Are you touch deprived?" 

Massage: Get yourself a massage from a professional or exchange massages with a friend. Full body massage I recommend you get from a professional so professional boundaries are tended.  With friends, you can exchange neck, hand, foot, back massages. Arm and lower leg massages are good too.  Give yourself the experience of giving and getting platonic skin to skin contact on a regular basis.

When you are greeting or saying goodbye, incorporate attentive touch with the transition. This can be a long tender embrace with a loved one.  It can be a caring holding of hands or tender cheek press with a friend. It can be an expression of warmth through shaking hands.

And don't be afraid to reach out physically while in a conversation. Touch someone's hand. Squeeze their wrist.

See: "Are you touch deprived" (not the same as above). 

Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin

Anthropologist Ashley Montagu writes, “The communications we transmit through touch constitute the most powerful means of establishing human relationships, the foundation of would greatly help our rehumanization if we would pay closer attention to the need we all have for tactual experience.” 

See: "Bridging the great divide: touching our most basic humanity," by Linda Marks, MSM. 

Bringing touch into your life on a daily basis, being conscious of touch, welcoming the skin to skin contact in safe and tender ways may surprise you with a boost to your eating disorder recovery.

1.           How can you bring more human touch into your life?

2.           Where are the opportunities to let yourself be touched?

3.           Where are your opportunities to initiate touch?

4.           Where are your present or new activities that naturally include platonic touch?

Joanna Poppink, MFT, private practice psychotherapist, Specializing in eatng disorder, PTSD and Anxiety recovery. 

E-mail for free telephone consultation. 
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Author: Healing Your Hungry Heart: recovering from your eating disorder

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*photo Image courtesy of photostock, published on 14 March 2011 at (I chose this photo because everyone is touching everyone with such ease.  Look at the little girl's smile and position of her head. It looks to me like she's pressing the side of her face into her brother's arm.  :)






0 # HmmPTC 2014-09-28 17:06
How are you supposed to get hugs when you live alone?  My cat lays on my head everynight, does that count?
0 # animals and peoplepinkjoanna 2014-09-28 22:00

Dear PTC,

Animals provide a lot of love and physical tenderness to their human companions. Sleeping with you cat can be reassuring and beneficial to both of you.

Still, you need human beings in your life, people you can shake hands with, pat on the back, jostle in play, dance with, rub shoulders with while working together on a project.

You can live alone and still have people in your life, people with whom to shae a touch and even a hug.

0 # YesPTC 2014-09-29 18:06
I have a lot of friends, but we're not always hugging each other. :-)   I see my parents once a week, so I can get my hugs from them, which I do...I got two from my nephews today too.
0 # Hugspinkjoanna 2014-09-29 22:00

Great, PTC!  And please remember, touch doens't have to be hugs. We have so many ways of being in physical connection, gentle, subtle, simple ways.  You are giving hugs to you family.  Wonderful.  You all benefit.   :-)

0 # simulating touch and human warmthshh 2014-10-01 01:17

Interesting read JP!

Very early on in treatment my therapist helped me to identify a sensation I feel quite regularly in the centre of my upper back as a need for touch or human warmth... I think it's something relating to being cradled in the womb and later held as a baby (or not), and I find that when that need is fulfilled I feel safe and warm and completely relaxed - it's the only time I feel like it's completely safe to let go of everything and relax properly.

With the support of my therapist I learned to satisfy this need, by warming up a wheat sack to put on the area and building myself a soft, warm, enshrouding nest out of pillows and quilts/duvets. Once I'm curled up in there I visualise feeling safe and held, when I close my eyes I visualise this light orangey glow, always across the right hand side of my face - a bit like the sun shining on your face with your eyes closed, but not as intense. The overall feeling is contentment and relaxation....and I usually fall asleep. In fact from starting therapy as someone with sleep issues that I'd had all my life, who tossed and turned and spent half of the night awake, this is also how I learned to sleep. I very rarely have any problems going to sleep now, and if I do I use this to resolve them.

Whilst I don't think this is a complete replacement for human contact - and as a mummy, I get lots of that - my 6 year old is particularly tactile, I do find it a really useful tool.

0 # Touch and contactJessie 2014-10-09 14:42

I have found that as I recover, I have been more willing to make contact, receive contact, and enjoy it. I used to shy away from it, even though I craved it. I would cry in massages. 


I have also found that EYE contact has become easier. I used to avert my gaze, not wanting to see or be seen. Braver and more "within" myself now, I have the confidence to look people in the eye and be with them. It's not always easy but it makes me feel powerful and confident.


Thank you for this important post!

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