Stay in touch

What is it about the hands’ proximity to wellbeing?

Words by Daniella Isaacs    Illustrations by Charlotte Edey   Tuesday 7 April, 2020   Long read

Prior to self-isolation, every week without fail a man named Andrew would take me underground into pretty much complete darkness in a crypt in east London. There, in the black nothingness, he would serve me a hot water with Chinese herbs. I’d sit, as instructed. He always played music to get me in the mood. He’d delicately inspect my wrists, touching one and then the other. Then, he’d look closely at my tongue before telling me to undress. What little light there was, he’d turn down even lower. And then I’d lie down on his bed and he’d touch my legs, back and feet – I love it when he touches my feet. Sometimes he’d use his fingers to touch my earlobes, too. If we ever felt like it, it would be now that he’d put his needles in me, intricately dancing the fine heads across my skin and guiding them with his steady hands. Other times, he’d take those hands and use them to scrape my back with lids from jars (he’s actually saved in my phone as ‘Lidman’). The lids were always a salvation, but it’s the hands that feel the best, the hands I miss the most. Under his guidance, when I fall into a semi-conscious state, sometimes I think of my childhood; sometimes I simply go straight to sleep. He does his thing and it usually lasts about 40 to 60 minutes. Up to an hour of utter bliss. Afterwards, I put on my clothes, thank him emphatically and he wishes me well. I feel bright, light and re-energised and carry on with my day. He’s my little (holistic) secret.
A colourful illustration.

Prior to self-isolation, every week without fail a man named Andrew would take me underground into pretty much complete darkness in a crypt in east London. There, in the black nothingness, he would serve me a hot water with Chinese herbs. I’d sit, as instructed. He always played music to get me in the mood. He’d delicately inspect my wrists, touching one and then the other. Then, he’d look closely at my tongue before telling me to undress. What little light there was, he’d turn down even lower. And then I’d lie down on his bed and he’d touch my legs, back and feet – I love it when he touches my feet. Sometimes he’d use his fingers to touch my earlobes, too. If we ever felt like it, it would be now that he’d put his needles in me, intricately dancing the fine heads across my skin and guiding them with his steady hands. Other times, he’d take those hands and use them to scrape my back with lids from jars (he’s actually saved in my phone as ‘Lidman’). The lids were always a salvation, but it’s the hands that feel the best, the hands I miss the most. Under his guidance, when I fall into a semi-conscious state, sometimes I think of my childhood; sometimes I simply go straight to sleep. He does his thing and it usually lasts about 40 to 60 minutes. Up to an hour of utter bliss. Afterwards, I put on my clothes, thank him emphatically and he wishes me well. I feel bright, light and re-energised and carry on with my day. He’s my little (holistic) secret. 

Cupping, reflexology, acupuncture, craniology, reiki, gua shua – you name it, I’ve done it. Any excuse for a stranger to touch me and I was there. It’s often the butt of my friends’ jokes – I even use it satirically in my writing – but I’m a firm holistic subscriber. I don’t believe these practices are a panacea for our wellbeing, nor that they hold the solution to cancer (as some extremists believe), anxiety or diabetes, but I do believe the power of touch is something that shouldn’t ever be sniffed at. In fact, the more we learn about touch, the more we realise just how central it is to all aspects of our being: cognitive, emotional, developmental and behavioural. It can be transformative for so many people – particularly for those of us (myself included) who struggle with consciously acknowledging feelings that are anything less than baseline happiness. In our disconnected, fast-paced, digitised world, the simple act of lying on a bed with someone in a safe and non-sexual way, being given total permission to let your body just be, and to listen to the physical cues that it is sending your way, is incredibly rare. It’s healing, human and central (in my opinion) to our overall wellbeing. 

Let’s think more about the power of another pair of hands on your body. My fellow primates, to be touched by another human being involves a complex communicative system used over millions of years of mammalian evolution. It includes a five-digit dexterous wonder (our hands), which can squeeze, press, hold and clasp another human being. That touch, first processed by the skin, sends neurochemical signals to the brain, which brings to consciousness the precise nature of our contact with the outer world – whether that’s via a friend, foe, toxin or remedy. 

A colourful illustration.
A colourful illustration.

Reiki

You close your eyes, then the healer puts their hands over you and ‘clears all the bad energy’. Although this is an ancient art form, which means it can’t be done by just anyone, there are many online reiki healing sessions and reiki masters willing to take your Skype call. 

The neuroscientist David Linden has spent decades devoted to exploring the science behind touch. In his book Touch: The Science Of Hand, Heart And Mind, he cites the powerful effect it has on our bodies, describing a study that took place in Romanian orphanages after the fall of communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. ‘There just weren’t enough people around to take care of babies. They were barely touched during the day,’ Linden explains. ‘These kids didn’t just have a host of emotional problems – though they were depressed and had high instances of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other issues – but they also had a whole raft of physical ailments. They had weakened immune systems and skin ailments.’

Linden goes on to mention the physical responses to emotional states: ‘the electric touch of romantic love, the unsettling feeling of being watched, the relief of pain from mindful practice, or the essential touch that newborns need to thrive.’ This cacophony of sensations aptly paints the fusion of mind and body. It’s the skin, our nerves and our brain. Therefore, it’s no great stretch to imagine experiencing an emotional response to body-based therapies – they’re interconnected. The different healers I’ve seen over the years talk of grieving mothers bursting into tears in the middle of acupuncture, and some mention teenagers experiencing fits of hysterical laughter. It’s an opportunity for connection, processing, growth and stillness. 

Of course, none of this is meant to minimise the power of talking therapies. I just wonder whether the snobbery surrounding more holistic physical treatment deserves a bit of a rethink. Because when I book in to see ‘Lidman’ and am mocked by the cynics around me, I can’t help but wish they’d try it, too. In this digital age, having the opportunity for another person to touch me carefully, generously and kindly, without any agenda at all, feels pretty magical. And if it’s backed by science, well, that’s just a bonus.

A colourful illustration.

Gua Sha

Gwyneth Paltrow, the high priestess of cupping back in the day, is urging her Goop disciples to go gua sha. The therapist scrapes your skin, normally your back, with a crystal (‘gua’ literally refers to a tool that scrapes the skin and ‘sha’ the redness that appears as a result). I had chronic neck pain and, after a few scrapes, it hasn’t hurt since.

A colourful illustration.
A colourful illustration.
A colourful illustration.

Reflexology

Some people consider reflexology a little ‘dusty’, but age-old needn’t mean outdated – the healing practice has lasted for a reason. It’s pure bliss: someone presses your feet while you fall into a semi-conscious stupor. The theory behind this therapy is that various points on your foot correspond to a part of your body, so if it’s painful, it represents an ailment in that area.