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Dr. Leon Hammer, M.D. - Touch as Therapeutic - HuggingWithin the first five years of my psychoanalytic training, it was increasingly clear to me that touch was the key ingredient missing from the otherwise overly-intellectual exercise of psychoanalysis. This awareness had several roots.

In my own therapy, my life was completely changed when a 76-year-old woman arose from her chair and walked across the room, to place her hand on my chest. A lifetime of physical and emotional guardedness evaporated in a convulsion of my entire body and being, and though I was by no means exorcised of all my demons, the aspect leading me down the road to serious mental disability was eliminated. I was in medical college at the time.

The second series of experiences involved the animals who were my constant companions during the years after 1961. I entered the William A. White Institute of Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis in New York in 1955 and, although I had been "moonlighting" in evening private clinics since 1953, I began to practice actively in 1956, following my psychiatric residency. In 1960, I inherited two very high-bred Persian cats, Mochca and Muki, from the followers of the recently-deceased director of the institute that I was attending.

Muki was a male and extremely friendly to one and all. Mochca, on the other hand, was a killer, approachable only when she was in heat. One could not touch her without coming away with a bloody stump (formerly called a hand). However, when the most seriously ill of all my patients, a woman in and out of mental hospitals, sat on my couch, Mochca came out of her hiding place.

She quietly jumped on this patient’s lap, allowing the woman to pet her freely without any consequences except loud purring. Ultimately this woman took Mochca to live with her (good riddance from my perspective), and Mochca lived to the ripe old age of 23 years. However, more amazing was this woman's remarkable recovery after 15 years of hospitalizations: to marry a wealthy man, have a child, and live "happily ever after" with Mochca, to whom we both attributed a significant part of her miraculous recovery.

Following on from my own experience with touch, and a deep sense of the need for it combined with these experiences with my animal colleagues, I began my search for methodologies involving touch, and eventually came upon Ida Rolf’s Rolfing, Fritz Perls's Gestalt therapy, and Alexander Lowen and John Pierokos's bioenergetics (1967-75). However, I found all these forms of touch a physical assault on the body, based on the concept of overcoming "defenses" and "resistance" in the physical as well as mental bodies. I had previously read Wilhelm Reich's Character Analysis in the psychoanalytic institute.

It was pure serendipity, then, when I stepped into Dr. Van Buren's office in England in 1971, and found myself absolutely certain that I had discovered, without knowing anything about it, the medicine (CM) that I had always meant when I said, at the age of 2 ½, that I wanted to be a doctor. Here was touch in a medical setting that was synchronic with my concept of nourishing the soul and body, rather than attacking it (as is the case with bioenergetics and Rolfing).

Others have written about touch in the context of healing. Dr. David Bresler, Director of the Pain Control Unit at UCLA, tells his patients "to use hugging as a part of their treatment for pain" with great success.

Dr. Harold Voth, Senior Psychiatrist at the Menninger Foundation, states that, "hugging is an excellent tonic" and "hugging can lift depression, enabling the body's immune system to become tuned up. Hugging breathes fresh life into a tired body and makes you feel younger and more vibrant. In the home, daily hugging will improve relationships and significantly reduce friction." He also said, "The warm meaningful embrace can have a very positive effect on people, particularly during times of widespread stress and tension like today."

Dr. Robert Rynearson, who is Chairman of the Psychiatry Department at Scott and White Clinic in Temple, Texas, says, "I'm convinced that the tender embrace can prevent or cure a host of different problems," and "A hug can have an astonishing therapeutic effect by providing a sense of companionship and happiness."

"Researchers discovered that when a person is touched, the  amount of hemoglobin in their blood increases significantly," said Helen Colton, author of The Gift of Touch. She also stated that, "My fifteen years of research have convinced me that regular hugging can actually prolong life by curing harmful depression and stimulating a stronger will to live."

Pamela McCoy, RN, who trains nurses at Grant Hospital in Columbus, Ohio said, "We found that people who are hugged or touched can often stop medication and go to sleep."

There are of course, challenges associated with touch in a therapeutic relationship, especially between a male practitioner and a female patient. It is the responsibility of the practitioner to maintain the boundaries between the healing power of touch, and the respect and recognition of privacy, personal space, and of the physical and emotional comfort of patient and practitioner alike.


This article was adapted from Dr. Hammer’s book, The Patient-Practitioner Relationship in Acupuncture (Thieme, 2009).


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Originally appeared 24 June, 2015

Touch as Therapeutic
Dr. Leon Hammer, M.D.