Have you ever heard this? From a friend, family member or even from a stranger? I’ve heard this far too many times. “But why?” I say? There’s some deep psychology surrounding this phenomenon. Treading around this topic can sometimes be a little difficult – without any intention of offending anyone, we’ll explore some of the psychology around this now.
Firstly, I should say that it’s not only concerning when someone says this, but also it’s actually quite “unnatural” – and I use that word in the context of our most-natural state of living and being as a human. We literally need touch to survive past infancy. It’s not an option actually – many ill-considered studies in the early 1900’s discovered this through studying orphaned infants in a touch-deprived environment. To the horror of all of us, they discovered the profound link between “failure to thrive” and infant touch, with the majority of the infants in the study dying and the rest of them being significantly developmentally delayed.
So with that horrible truth presented, how is it that we can enter a state in our lives where we don’t like to be touched? We are social beings, and a HUGE amount of information can be relayed through touch.
Yes, there are clearly certain psychological traumas and different forms of abuse associated with this and they are an entire topic of discussion on their own. There are also strong links with this phenomenon and certain medical conditions such as autism-spectrum disorders. However, these are separate discussions and what I’m talking about here is a phenomenon where there are seemingly no developmental conditions and no history of significant trauma/abuse.
There’s a documented phenomenon called “sensory defensiveness” that is believed to impact about 15 percent of the population! It’s cause is largely undetermined, yet can include any number of factors including all environmental and possibly even some genetic links. It’s been reported to present as a hypersensitivity to touch (and often, other sensory input such as hearing, sight and so on), in all scenarios including clothing and jewelry, walking barefoot, hugging and other social touch, and intimate touch even between partners.
Not only is this driven by elements of psychology, but when placed in scenarios of touch, these people also experience significant psychological discomfort – ranging from anxiety, to psychological withdrawal, social isolation and even a physical response of shaking. These all have significant effects on everyday living.
How to cope with sensory defensiveness:
A few studies have reported some coping strategies identified by people who are sensory defensive, which they have personally found to be effective in helping reduce the severity and frequency of uncomfortable situations. They include:
- Initiate the touch – don’t wait for someone else to spring it on you unexpectedly. Some find this useful to disarm their own feelings of anxiety.
- Routine – establishing routine around touch and creating a touch-schedule allows for significant mental preparation.
- Talking it through – clear communication about comfort levels and letting people know when you “need a minute” to mentally prepare is a primary coping mechanism.
- Know your comfortable space – not so that you can continuously go there, but if you need to unwind from a touch scenario that has you stressed, you can go to this comfortable space to counteract any negative emotions that arise.
As well, all of these strategies can be used to gradually increase your level of comfort with touch. Once you have the strategies in place you can use them to slowly broaden your range of positive touch parameters. It’s a process of re-training your emotional and psychological response to touch (and other sensory input) to make it an experience that you automatically associate with nurture and more positive emotions, but the good thing is that it can be done!
Have you ever experienced sensory defensiveness? Hopefully these tools can help you and people you know to establish greater comfort with an essential component of health.
If you can relate to this article, then you might like to check out other articles that could help develop comfort with touch, such as: “Developing Fluency in the Language of Touch“, “#TouchItForward” or “Be Kind When You Touch Me“. This article was reproduced from our Quarterly E-Magazine publication and you can find more interesting content on the psychology of touch in our Sixth Issue.