Feeling a little touched?
We know the following about massage, says Solveig Berggren, Swedish massage therapist: It leads to increased secretion of oxytocin, a calming hormone, and to a decrease in the secretion of cortisol, the hormone most commonly linked to stress. It has been found to reduce anxiety and aggression in children.
And we know this about schools in the USA: The single most troubling phenomenon in the past decade has been that of excessive violence by students on students, punctuated by sporadic school shootings, the extremity of which has left as many people confused as terrified about potential future attacks.
We know that psychologists addressing the problem of school violence have shown no inclination to deal with violence with any form of touching. The worn-out body-mind duality has been the watermark of any new currency in the psychotherapy field. You do the body stuff, we'll do the mind stuff, we tend to say. We are the untouchables. But, more importantly, we are the un-touching profession.
But, just maybe, at the cutting edge of the psychotherapies, just over the hill of our near-paranoid obsession with physical disconnection from our patients is a recognition in the physical therapies of a rather touching (so to speak) warmth that we've learnt to live without in our consulting rooms.
Suspend for a moment - if you are able - the mind-body duality, and it's not hard to conceive of managing the violent, bodily-oriented violence of US schools with the alternative of harmonious and nurturing bodily engagement.
"I know that massage brings some sort of safety in the group," comments Berggren. "It combines an opportunity for the children to gain a greater understanding of themselves while fulfilling their need for more attention. It satisfies the unspoken need for love, touching and validation."
Berggren has been promoting the use of massage in Swedish classrooms since 1966. "We live in a stressed society and maybe don't have the time for our children that they are in need of. And we know today that touching is as important for children as food and sleep are. So that´s why I thought massage would do a lot of help for both children and teachers," she recalls.
" Sometimes I was so surprised to see the reactions. For instance, after they had the massage they felt so relaxed that some of them fell asleep at their desks. Then I was really convinced about the need for this."
Massage has now taken off in the bulk of schools in Sweden, Berggren says, but teachers always have the final say in whether they encourage it or not.
Pupils work in two's (with their clothes on, if you're concerned), to a backdrop of gentle music, for about ten minutes at a time. When children show a readiness, Berggren instructs them to massage one another on the back, neck, scalp, face, arms and fingers.
She stresses mutual respect by the students, avoiding hurting in any way or approaching the "private zones".
Is she touched? Must be, I guess. I mean, have you ever heard a therapist using these words before: "This is my way to contribute [to] making a friendlier world. For me it is all about love. I will never give up."
Howard Atkinson is a London-based contributing editor to New Therapist, private psychotherapist and writer.
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