We all need to be held and caressed sometimes
Most of us know what it feels like to be hugged and held when we’re feeling down, anxious or distressed. And remember reaching out to someone we love when we’re suffering from pain and anxiety. Those we love can often respond with a reassuring hug, caress or massage, letting us know they are there alongside us. Mothers and fathers will also be aware of how easily their children can be soothed when they are being held, rocked to-and-fro or wrapped in their arms.
Research proves this is part of neurobiological process and there is a scientific explanation for it in (Current Biology). When infants are held they experience an almost instant reflex – creating a sense of calm reassurance and euphoria which is activated in the brain and body. This kind of contact often includes: being held, stroked, hugged, kissed, tactile interaction, eye-contact and a soft reassuring voice. Body mirroring and even syncopated heartbeats or breathing can also help to offset the child’s distress. This mutually pleasurable interaction activates a surge of neurobiological processes in the brain caused by the mirror neurons, the parasympathetic nervous system and the cerebellum. It also triggers a flood of ‘feel-good’ hormones such as endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin, which create a sense of euphoria.
Infants are wired-up with this inborn neurobiological reflex: activating a deep sense of calm and relaxation when they are being held. Parents will also be reassured that their baby feels safe and peaceful while being soothed. In this way we all learn as infants how to deal with anxiety through practising self-soothing in relationships with another. Without these interactions we would remain in a constant state of vigilance, stress and vulnerability.
The neural pathways which trigger this ‘soothing response’ are synchronised by the central nervous system, the motor neurons, sensory neurons and other homoeostatic functions in the body. This means there are alternative strategies which may help calm adults and babies alike – such as using a soothing voice tone, eye-contact, skin-to-skin contact, caressing and being held in the foetal position.
Neuroscientists have discovered that this reflex is coordinated by an interaction between the parasympathetic nervous system and the cerebellum. The cerebellum is an area of the brain responsible for multiple functions such as homoeostasis (physiological equilibrium) and proprioception (the awareness of one’s own body position and movements within a spatial dimension). As well as this, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated to help lower the heart rate, regulate breathing, relax muscles and release endorphins in response to being held.
The cerebellum plays a major function in inducing a state of calm, relaxing muscles, slowing heart rate and allowing restful breathing. The cerebellum is usually activated in order to protect the infant from harm by preparing its muscles for 'fight-or-flight' or keeping track of incoming sensory stimuli from the environment. It also has the unconscious function of maintaining the infant’s homoeostasis (physiological equilibrium) which can create feelings of peace and well being. This is because the cerebellum is wired up to the vagus nerve that ensures the infant’s heart-rate remains regulated and helps reduce adrenalin and anxiety in stressful conditions.
As the bodily processes of the infant slow down it remains quiet, still and relaxed, indicating it feels safe and no longer vulnerable to distress. Infants may also reacted with gurgles, closing their eyes and adopting a foetal position, with their arms and legs flexed and head held in.
The same is also true of us as adults. We can induce these states of calm and tranquillity in friends, family and partners, simply by offering them a hug, holding or caressing them. Through counselling we can now learn to regulate our emotions and sensory experience of the world, by being in contact with another. A psychotherapist Bowlby described therapy as a kind of 'holding environment' for the client who experiences the empathy, support and compassion of the therapist.
Counselling can also reduce anxiety by practising Mindfulness which activates the parasympathetic response and puts the cerebellum into a state of equilibrium, allowing us to self-regulate our emotions and create an inner sense of well being. It helps us to slow down, relax and hold ourselves in a quiet peaceful state of body and mind. It also means we are learning to reproduce a similar response to when we were infants being held or picked up by our parents. Some us might need reminding. So when you see a loved one, family member or friend in distress don’t be frightened to reach out and let them be held.
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About Gregori Savva
I am an experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, I've been profoundly affected by my work with other people as a psychotherapist, anthropologist and writer. I'm captivated by the interior lives of others and the cultures they live in. Please visit my website for resources on counselling, self-help tools and resources.