By Lisa Rose Dyal, M.P.S.
As I navigate my own mental health journey, one of the self-care strategies I have found to be most helpful is physical touch. This is a concept backed by robust research; studies have found that touch acts as a social signal for safety, thus inhibiting fear and stress responses.
When managing my symptoms of anxiety, I have experienced just how effective social touch can be. Of course, I find comfort in giving my husband a bear hug when I’m stressed. But perhaps the most effective coping mechanism I have developed when battling severe anxiety is taking the time to snuggle. I put my arms around my husband and squeeze him; sometimes I talk about what’s making me anxious and sometimes I cry.
As I feel his touch and hear myself talking, I feel grounded. I realize that I am, in fact, sane — I am simply experiencing stress. This practice has been immeasurably healing. It acts as a strong reset button and helps me to reframe anxious thoughts.
I have also learned that the benefits of physical touch can extend beyond the actual moments of human interaction; even memories and visualization of affectionate experiences can be calming.
I meditate daily, usually for five minutes during my breaks from work. While repeating encouraging mantras is certainly helpful, I also use meditation to envision comforting touch and promote awareness. I have been doing this for many years. Sometimes, when I couldn’t sleep, my mom would sometimes get in bed with me and verbally guide me through a meditation of being on an island, playing with puppies and kittens. My best friend was there too, lifting higher baby high in the air; her baby had her dark hair and dark eye lashes. I recorded my mom saying this guided meditation, so that when she wasn’t there, I could listen to her to help me sleep.
During one of my meditations, I imagine my husband and I lying on a raft in the clear turquoise water of Bali. The sun is hot on our skin, so I feel some tingling on the skin on my face. We sleep in a hut on the water that can only be reached by boat. I imagine the soft, cotton drapes that hang down and blow with the wind.
I picture one of us gently pushing the other off the raft and playing like kids, splashing water at each other. My husband holds out his clasped hands, and I step on them so he can throw me into a back flip. We hold frozen corn, peas and carrots to feed to tropical fish. Our hands gently open in the water, and a grey-white fish with whiskers approaches. It is followed by black and orange fish and purple and black fish. I envision my husband holding me in his arms as he stands in the water, twirling around in circles. The water is warm.
I often think back to something one of my therapists said: “An anxiety attacks never lasts. Our bodies can’t maintain that level of anxiety for too long.” I always knew this intellectually, but lately, I have been able to experience it personally as I ground myself with positive touch and meditation. This notion, coupled with my new coping strategies, gives me hope.
Lisa Rose Dyal has her master’s degree in English as a Second Language (ESL). She has worked as an ESL and Spanish teacher for about a decade. She loves pottery, writing and dancing. Lisa lives with her husband in Seattle.
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