Brita S. Reed is a 2013 graduate of the PsyD Program in Clinical Psychology at Antioch University, New England.
A physician's armamentarium includes the presence of the tool of touch which is used not only to diagnose and to heal, but also to reassure patients that they are safe and well cared for in the hands of the physician. The use of touch in the practice of psychology, however, is relatively proscribed. In this essay, I examine how we, as psychologists, can best "hold" our clients without the use of touch. In the first part of this essay, I explore some theoretical considerations on relational touch in psychotherapy. I define relational touch as touch that occurs between people and is comprised of both positive intentionality and positive purpose. I describe the psychological literature related to this conceptualization of touch, from the work of Watson to Harlow, over the past 100 years. A description of the power of relational touch in medicine follows. The biopsychosocial impact of relational touch on development is unearthed, in part, through an understanding of the neurophysiology of touch. Next, I turn to attachment theory and the mother-infant dyad, and explore the right-brain mediated pre-verbal communications, including relational touch, which allow the infant to feel safe and well-cared for. In the second part of this essay, I discuss some clinical considerations on relational touch in psychotherapy. I begin with an exploration of the historical and theoretical considerations that surrounded Freud's initial embracement of and eventual proscription against the use of relational touch in psychotherapy. A discussion of the origins of psychotherapies that utilize relational touch as their primary therapeutic modality follows. Next, I discuss some benefits of the use of relational touch in psychotherapy on the fostering of a therapeutic alliance; the facilitation of clients' self-disclosure; and the generation of a sense of safe space during session reminiscent of Winnicott's concept of a holding environment. An acknowledgment that the field of psychology is embedded in a cultural matrix in which issues, such as power dynamics inherent in the therapist-client dyad, create pitfalls to the judicious and thoughtful use of relational touch in psychotherapy follows. Political and ethical considerations, including American Psychological Association's silence on the use of relational touch in psychotherapy, as well as an exploration of the psychotherapist's ethical obligations, round out the discussion.
Reed, Brita S., "My Journey from Physician to Psychologist: Relational Touch in Psychotherapy" (2013). Dissertations & Theses. 59.