Do you know anyone who doesn’t like to be touched? When you lean in for a hug or try to the comfort them do they lean away?
Or are you someone who doesn’t like to be touched? Does the idea of a massage make you recoil?
Dont worry. You are not alone. It’s a phenomenon known as “sensory defensiveness”.
What is Sensory defensiveness?
There is often said to be some pretty significant psychology surrounding it. Although for many who experience it there are clearly certain traumas and different forms of abuse associated with sensory defensiveness and they make up an expansive discussion on their own.
What we are talking about here is a phenomenon where there are seemingly no developmental disorders and no history of significant trauma or abuse.
Some evidence suggests that as many as 15% of the population suffer from sensory defensiveness and avoid touch. For many people who experience an aversion to touch, it can be very upsetting.
Its 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.
When in situations where touch is inevitable, many also experience significant discomfort – ranging from anxiety, to psychological withdrawal, social isolation and even a physical response of shaking.
These all have significant effects on everyday living.
We literally need touch to survive
An aversion to touch contradicts our most-natural state of living and being as a human.
We literally need touch to survive past infancy from feeding, burping, and so on.
In fact a number of ill-considered studies in the early 1900’s discovered this through studying orphaned infants in a touch-deprived environment. Horribly, 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.
Helping to heal sensory defensiveness
There are a number of tools that have been suggested and can be used for working through sensory defensiveness.
A few studies have reported some coping strategies identified by people who experience sensory defensiveness, which they have personally found to be effective in helping reduce the severity and frequency of uncomfortable situations.
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. Be the first to reach for a handshake and the first to go in for a hug! This is especially a great practice when you know you're going to be around a lot of people - prepare yourself to take first action.
Establishing routine around touch and creating a touch-schedule allows for significant mental preparation. Try to incorporate a daily hug or some kind of friendly, compassionate physical contact. Routine might even mean working it into a certain time every day. Perhaps when you get to the office you greet everyone with a hug or hand on the shoulder and make it a socially engaging part of your day.
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. If someone is coming in for some contact and you see it happening and you're not ready, a simple request for a pause is more than reasonable. Reassure them it's nothing that they've done, you just need a moment.
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. For example, you might have a certain room in your home or even a certain spot in nature that feels like a sanctuary for you. Take time to unwind in those spaces without relying on them as a coping mechanism. Reflect on the touch-experiences you've had in the past day/week and process any thoughts or emotions that arise.
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!
These tools can help you and people you know to establish greater comfort with an essential component of health: touch.