Sure, I knew at 23 how crucial stress was and how destructive it could be, but little did I know stress would be my life's lesson, not just one tiny tidbit of fact I learned along the way.
I understood that stress could stop a person from getting on stage, seeking right employment, being in the relationship of their dreams, as well as interacting with family and friends the way they saw it in Hallmark movies. What I didn't realize was the little nuts and bolts, how stress creeps up on us. Stress isn't an enemy carrying a gun. It's the antagonist in every one of our scripts, tempting us to stretch and reach or bail and collapse.
Some people love stress. They eat it for breakfast. Like coffee, it wakes them up. Some people need stress to keep them moving. For others stress is like an itchy tag on the back of the neck. It's there. They don't want to remove it in case they need to resell the item. The tag is a reminder how much was spent and how much others will supposedly admire them for being able to do so. Some of us need these reminders of what ranks and who succeeds. Some of us only believe something is true if it's on the nightly news. But stress gets everyone if attention is not paid to reducing it. Sooner or later, the stress builds enough that one can hardly breathe.
I know a woman who grew up in the country when outhouses were still in place. Once in the city she loved how many options opened up in her mind and world. She got her education, made an excellent career choice, stock piled money, traveled, and got to build "more" for those she left behind. She didn't want to slow down, because she'd gotten used to the feeling of accomplishment every spring when going over her financial growth with her accountant.
Years ago she told me when still working that I was co-dependent because I needed people. I took offense to the comment but didn't fight her on the subject. Six months after she retired I saw her reaching out to many in her midst. I asked her if she was suddenly becoming co-dependent. I knew when I was working full time that all the people I needed to be nice to on my way to work, on the job, and on the way home exhausted me. I didn't quite realize then how much of an introvert I was. But that's another story.
Right now I want to speak about the healing affects touch had on this woman. A couple of years ago she explained to me early on she felt emotional discord in relationships was too much of a distraction to her success, thus she kept herself isolated and independent. She'd never married or had kids. This year she told me there was little if any physical demonstration of love in the family home. She didn't need hugs and she preferred not to be touched.
Recently she was having a panic attack, only it wasn't short-lived. It had arrived and wouldn't leave. Weeks were going by where she could not find her balance within, thus every step outside was excruciating. Mind you, her health insurance was paying for psychiatric appointments and medicine, but she was finding no lasting relief. She felt her only answer was to go into the hospital, even though all of her friends agreed she was better off at home, as did her shrink.
She admitted, "I should have retired at 50. I had enough money. I wanted more. Now I don't have the strength or internal stability to do anything."
For the many years we conversed I'd always mentioned my healing touch, the way my chair massage worked, and asked if she wanted a hug. She'd always answer with, "No thanks. I don't need one. Do you?"
But last week she let me know she was particularly uncomfortable and needed help. I listened for a long while before saying, "I've said it before and I'll say it again. What you need is touch."
Surprisingly, her arm shot out to me. She grabbed my hand as she sunk down to the carpet. She finally let me massage her neck, shoulders, head and arms from my seat on her couch. I could feel her, moment by moment, releasing the fear, tension, and agony she'd just been describing with halted words. She let me put my arms around her neck and rest my hands on her heart as I whispered how important the breath is and how she needed to be breathing. "It needs to be more than just the shallow, perfunctory, unconscious breath in order to feel better." I started to do my yogic breathing behind her right ear. Five minutes later she said, "You sure do breathe deeply." Ten minutes after that she started to breathe more deeply herself.
Over an hour later she stood up slowly, squarely looked at me and said, "Wow. I had no idea. I do feel different. You are priceless."
Her panic attack had subsided. Her hands stopped shaking. For a while, she felt calm enough to have choice again.
Touch does matter. Healing, empathetic, restorative touch makes a difference. Virginia Satir, an American psychologist recognized and rewarded in her field around the world, said, "We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth."
How few of us get half of that each day? How many, like my friend, were raised without touch and feel touch is confusing because it was never familiar to them. Millions have animals to pet, which calms their heartbeat and assists the body to get beyond fight or flight, when sympathetic nervous systems get triggered throughout the day. Many people can calm themselves with a pet who doesn't talk back, but personal relationships are a whole other level of vulnerability.
I am aware that as children we are taught not to let strangers touch us. We must be wise in finding safe touch, which can soothe and heal us. As Dr. Peter A Levine in his book Waking the Tiger says, it is therapeutic touch that helps people through trauma.
It is touching and being touched that can soberly shift stress out of overdrive, and the body back into flow.