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Priya Ram experienced her skin hunger hit anxious heights the day she turned 40 last year. Besides the pandemic, she had survived a year of intense upheaval, after her father passed away following prolonged illness, her only brother had gotten married – outside of his caste after years of seeking his family’s support, and the reality of her solitude had begun to tighten its hold on her nervous system, causing panic attacks that at times led to blackouts.
“I had been crumbling for over a decade, but my alone-ness had new meaning now as I hit 40, an age that finds little kindness in the Indian society if you are single,” she says.
Having grown up in an orthodox setting where the line between the sexes was etched in stone and conserved, generation after generation, through extreme co-dependent manipulation and guilt, in 2018, the marketing professional from Chennai found it easier to break her two-year -long and only relationship with her boyfriend, than wade through the dense childhood trauma that kept her from trusting any interpersonal relationship. She has also been sexually inactive since.
In the deluge of literature on touch deprivation and loneliness that broke out online after the pandemic, Priya solidarity found, and used the lockdown months to prepare herself for touch-based therapies that she hoped could permeate her defenses and enable her to “feel safe in my body again.”
Even India’s sexually regressive society couldn’t deny the mental health crisis that social and physical isolation caused during the pandemic, with experts emphasizing on the body’s need to produce more oxytocin, (the anti-stress hormone released while touching and hugging), to counter the excess cortisol (the stress hormone) that was released following Covid-19. And as life eases up after a third wave, movements such as conscious snuggling, and body work techniques such as somatic psychotherapy and ‘polarity therapy’, are finding newer takers driven either by curiosity or the instinctive need to be held in a safe, non -judgmental space.
Priya signed up for polarity therapy, a form of energy healing technique developed by osteopath, chiropractor and naturopath Randolph Stone in 1947. As a system of treatment in alternative medicine, practitioners use a combination of touch, exercise, nutrition and self-awareness, which they believe helps restore balance in the body’s energy.
“Breaking out of my comfort zone to seek just plain, well-intended touch was a big challenge too, because the only form of intimacy I had known was sexual, and I was conditioned to associate that with shame and guilt. I’ve gone for two sessions so far, and while I’m yet to experience an ‘energy shift’ per say in my body, the safety of that space enabled me to break down and cry, which in itself has softened my trauma a little,” says Priya.
In recent times, The New York Times bestseller, ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by American psychiatrist and researcher Bessel Van Der Kolk, is among the leading slew of modern studies that cite scientific advances to show that trauma can literally reshape both body and brain , compromising patients’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust. Research has shown that a society’s inherent sexism, patriarchy and discrimination on the basis of caste and religion, along with generational trauma within families, leaves long-term abnormalities in the bodies of its women and marginalized genders, caused by a host of mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Professionals also point out that in a society that stigmatizes the body’s natural sexuality, or in people who may have gone through abuse, trauma is often enmeshed in their sexuality, and must be understood in its interconnectedness to aspects such as self-esteem, past history and upbringing, to be effectively addressed.
“For those who have undergone trauma, even the joy of trusting somebody and connecting with them through touch is difficult. People who have experienced domestic or sexual abuse, for instance, have difficulty touching their own body or being touched, because initially, the integrity of the touch was not maintained,” says somatic psychotherapist Dr Sneha Rooh. “They tend to dissociate from their bodies because the nervous system sees touch as violent, unless proved otherwise. Somatic psychology brings the person back into their body using their breath first,” she says.
Practitioners of energy-based healing therapies using touch, say a step-by-step process preparing the body to become “receptive” to healing, is a key part of their work. Facilitators of access consciousness that involves touching points on the head believed to stimulate positive change in the brain, first get participants to a place of “allowance”, or complete non-judgment, before opening them up to the potential of healing. Chandigarh based touch therapist Sahaya Jeevan says she puts down strict guidelines and a thorough screening process ahead of open workshops. “I prefer participants who come through trusted references, and talk to them at length before beginning work with them,” she says. “We also establish the ground rule that certain parts of the body are out of bounds,” she says.
Parallelly, in a society where the threat of sexual abuse is as real, and children have to be trained early on to identify and fight danger, it’s important to listen to your body and discern what works for you. Clinical psychiatrist Dr N Rangarajan says our innate wiring as social animals may have also pushed us to a vulnerable state of seeking intimacy without caution after long periods of isolation.
“Especially in a scenario where most of these therapies are not organised, studied, methodical and regulated, the danger of a practitioner abusing their position is real. Touch by itself means nothing if it isn’t driven by the right intention and emotional connect,” says Dr Rangarajan. “If you feel uncomfortable with a certain way you’re being touched at a session, regard it as your body’s warning and leave. You need not wait to streamline it,” he says.
Touch also need not always be stimulated with a human being; it could be with an animal, or the earth itself, says Dr Sneha, “You could explore this by walking barefoot, or laying down on the grass. One may follow this order before opening up to another human being’s touch, if at all they want to,” she says. “You must never push yourself towards touch either from yourself or another. Start small, and always trust your body. There is no point bombarding your nervous system with so much hyper arousal.”
Studies have shown that we naturally are moved to touch someone when they are in distress. Putting a hand on someone’s shoulder or stroking someone’s hair is nourishing. It is after all, the first language we learn, that elicits a chain of natural chemical reactions in our body. But non-sexual touching is hard to internalize, especially for heterosexual men, who are conditioned to repress and scrutinize any intimacy outside of the sexual realm. This has often severed their possibilities of physical shows of affection with a father figure or a same-gendered friend. To this effect, the Malayalam film ‘Kumbalangi Nights’ is among the rare popular culture representations of a man’s inherent need for an empathetic hold in therapy, in a revolutionary scene featuring its protagonist’s poignant interaction with his shrink.
“When I lost my wife in an unexpected accident, I couldn’t get myself to cry at her funeral, because I was never allowed to forget that I had a young son to raise and a mother to care for,” says Anish Paul ( name changed on request), an accountant from Chennai. “I had grown up imbibing these ideas of masculinity, but I realized how unaligned with them I was only when I lost the woman who had kept me in balance.”
After Anish re-joined work, he started going out for tea with a male colleague helped him get his much-needed timeout and talk. “One day, he embraced me tightly,” says Anish. “I was initially held by surprise, but realized it was the most comforting thing I had felt in months.”
“From then on, it has become a ritual – a long walk, followed by a cup of black tea and cigarette, and a warm hug, before we get back into work,” says Anish. “He’s easily the fastest friend I’ve made, and one who’s been most instrumental in my journey to recovery.”


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