Haphephobia (Chiraptophobia, Aphephobia, Aphenphosmphobia), or the fear of touch, is an uncommon but often devastating phobia. If you suffer from haphephobia, you fear being touched by anyone, although some people are only afraid of being touched by those of the opposite gender.
Why we are Afraid of Touching Other People?
Why indeed we are no comfortable of touching strangers?
Is it because of the American business culture fostering the old-fashioned approach to the touch due to the fear of sexual harassment?
Is it because of the conservative, traditional, and religious backgrounds, forcing the cautious and directly forbidding such behavior?
Is it because we are afraid to “open up” to other people, we do not fully trust?
Is it because we fear rejection?
Or, because we do not want to be considered strange and funny by other people?
Many questions, few answers. Actually, in most cases, there is a single and simple answer: all of that above!
Writing in 1928, John B. Watson, one of the originators of the behaviorist school of psychology, urged parents to maintain a physical boundary between themselves and their children: “Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job on a difficult task.” Watson acknowledged that children must be bathed, clothed, and cared for, but he believed that excessive touching—that is, caressing—would create “mawkish” adults. An untouched child, he argued, “enters manhood so bulwarked with stable work and emotional habits that no adversity can quite overwhelm him.”
Many parents still follow the Watson recommendations to various degree, but the numerous studies proved that if you want to attain the positive results with your kids, we should constantly do the opposite: touch, as frequent and as caring as possible.
Let’s review what are the attributes of the non-verbal communication, which can be exchanged by the means of touching other people.
Non-verbal Communication through Touch
DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, in the recent 2009 study, clearly demonstrated that we have an innate ability to decode emotions via touch alone. In a series of experiments, Hertenstein had volunteers attempt to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger solely through touch. Many participants appeared to be extremely uneasy about this experiment. "This is a touch-phobic society," Hertenstein concluded. "We're not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily."
But touch they did—it was, after all, for science. The results suggest that for all our caution about touching, we come equipped with an ability to send and receive emotional signals solely by doing so. Participants communicated eight distinct emotions—anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness—with accuracy rates as high as 78 percent. "I was surprised," Hertenstein admits. "I thought the accuracy would be at chance level," about 25 percent.
Previous studies by Hertenstein and others have produced similar findings abroad, including in Spain (where people were better at communicating via touch than in America) and the U.K. Research has also been conducted in Pakistan and Turkey. "Everywhere we've studied this, people seem able to do it," he says.
Indeed, we appear to be wired to interpret the touch of our fellow humans. A study providing evidence of this ability was published in 2012 by a team who used fMRI scans to measure brain activation in people being touched. The subjects, all heterosexual males, were shown a video of a man or a woman who was purportedly touching them on the leg. Unsurprisingly, subjects rated the experience of male touch as less pleasant. Brain scans revealed that a part of the brain called the primary somatosensory cortex responded more sharply to a woman's touch than to a man's. But here's the twist: The videos were fake. It was always a woman touching the subjects.
The results were startling, because the primary somatosensory cortex had been thought to encode only basic qualities of touch, such as smoothness or pressure. That its activity varied depending on whom subjects believed was touching them suggests that the emotional and social components of touch are all but inseparable from physical sensations. "When you're being touched by another person, your brain isn't set up to give you the objective qualities of that touch," says study coauthor Michael Spezio, a psychologist at Scripps College. "The entire experience is affected by your social evaluation of the person touching you."
If touch is a language, it seems we instinctively know how to use it. But apparently it's a skill we take for granted. When asked about it, the subjects in Hertenstein's studies consistently underestimated their ability to communicate via touch—even while their actions suggested that touch may in fact be more versatile than voice, facial expression, and other modalities for expressing emotion.
"With the face and voice, in general we can identify just one or two positive signals that are not confused with each other," says Hertenstein. For example, joy is the only positive emotion that has been reliably decoded in studies of the face. Meanwhile, his research shows that touch can communicate multiple positive emotions: joy, love, gratitude, and sympathy. Scientists used to believe touching was simply a means of enhancing messages signaled through speech or body language, "but it seems instead that touch is a much more nuanced, sophisticated, and precise way to communicate emotions," Hertenstein says.
It may also increase the speed of communication: "If you're close enough to touch, it's often the easiest way to signal something," says Laura Guerrero, coauthor of Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships, who researches nonverbal and emotional communication at Arizona State University. This immediacy is particularly noteworthy when it comes to bonding. "We feel more connected to someone if they touch us," Guerrero notes.
There's no phrase book to translate the language of touch; if anything, experts have barely begun documenting its grammar and vocabulary. "We found that there are many different ways to indicate a given emotion through touch," Hertenstein notes. What's more, how a touch gets interpreted is very context dependent. "Whether we're at the doctor's office or in a nightclub plays a huge role in how the brain responds to the same type of contact," Spezio explains. Still, examining some of the notable ways that we communicate and bond through touch (and how we develop the capacity to do so) reveals the versatility of this tool and suggests ways to make better use of it. There's much to be gained from embracing our tactile sense—in particular, more positive interactions and a deeper sense of connection with others.
Our skin is our largest organ and would measure about two meters if it was laid flat. Given that our bodies are precious real estate, for something to take up this much room, there must be a good reason for it. Yes it’s to stop infections and yes it’s to stop our important bits and pieces falling out but there is another reason. It is the pathway for touch – one of our most powerful and important functions. For long-term wellbeing, touch is as important as food and security.
In one tender squeeze there are so many things that can be said. ‘You’ll be okay.’ ‘I’m proud of you.’ ‘Yeah, I’m worried about it too.’ ‘It’s scary isn’t it?’ ‘You’re freaking amazing.’ ‘Come on. Talk to me.’ ‘What’s happening with us?’ ‘I love you.’ When it’s from the right person in the right context, we rarely have to guess the words – the words become irrelevant anyway. Instantly we can feel closer, calmer and more understood.
Touch is fundamental to the human experience. It is most likely no accident then, that the lack of connection, either emotional or physical is discussed in terms of touch – tactless, lost touch with, out of touch.
Of course, touch can also hurt. With very good reason, we have made moves to protect ourselves and those we care about from the type of touch that can have catastrophic consequences. There are strong boundaries around the appropriate use of touch and this is a good thing – we need to feel safe. ‘Safe touch’ though, doesn’t have to mean ‘no touch’.
In discouraging the wrong touch, we need to be careful not to make ourselves vulnerable to ‘touch hunger’, a phenomenon described by Dr. Tiffany Field, Director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. When we experience a lack of physical contact, fundamental human needs are left unmet, particularly around our relationships and our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Research has found clear cultural differences in interpersonal touch. In a widely cited study, psychologist Sidney Jourard observed friends chatting to each other in cafes across the world. Jourard found that in the space of an hour, people in Puerto Rico touched each other an average of 180 times. In Paris, it was 110 times. Jet over to Florida and the averaged dropped to twice an hour. In London the average was zero.
There are plenty of good reasons not to touch every stranger we see – but when we hold back on too much, we miss out on too much.
How to Learn to Enjoy Human Touch?
Start from yourself, start enjoying your own body, as that the first and the most important step in the human touch language education. Spend time with your own body, learning what feels comfortable, and experimenting with no fear to look silly and childish. No one sees you at the moment; you are fully allowed to be yourself. Overcoming the uneasiness in your own body is necessary before you start learning interpersonal touch communication.
Make mental records of what do you like, what makes you uncomfortable, and what does not touch your sense. Do you like to be warm, or cool? Does it feel better to touch your skin with skin, with fabric, with feather, or with nothing but the open air? Without worrying too much about social expectations, what parts of your body feel private or personal to you? How do you protect them? Which ones, if any, are you more comfortable sharing? How, and with who?
Asking before leaning in for a hug or handshake, in addition to giving both people the option to veto, can buy you a second to assess where you're at. Do I want to be touched? Does that idea feel good, or bad, in my body? Does it make me feel tense, or relaxed? What does that mean? It can be a good idea to intentionally practice saying "no," "not now," and offering a more comfortable alternative, so that those responses come out a little more easily when you need them. Ability, willingness, and way to say NO is as important as the ability to enjoy the touch. You do not have to enjoy the touch anytime, anyplace, with anyone, you are in power and you are in control to make a choice, and know that your choice is respected and understood.
Work on building a culture, among your friends and family, of asking for touch.
Find a person you trust, to practice affectionate touch with. This can be whatever you want it to be--hand-holding, a hug, even just sitting close together. Notice what happens in your body and emotions, during this experience--usually, anxiety will increase, peak, and then decline. If it feels comfortable, talk this through with your friend as it happens. Waiting it out can help your brain and body recognize the feelings that you can actually handle, in settings where you want to.
Find a space, where you have emotional feeling of being safe. It may be home of your friends, your parents, or attend specially designated for safe environment events, like moving meditation, sensual massage, or tantric communication workshops.
Finally, and especially if the anxiety seems too overwhelming to handle alone, consider seeing a therapist. Depending on the intensity and cause of your response, it might be something you could resolve much more quickly with some help, than on your own. EMDR, mindfulness, and hypnosis are approaches that could be especially useful in managing a specific fear or anxiety similar to this one,
This is something we will be working around in our Dance Movement Therapy Group, and while it can feel awkward for some people at first, it can also be really helpful, given the perception of the safe and sacred environment.
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