The experience of touch is significant; both in its positive implications and in how it attracts caution and controversy. Accordingly, physical contact within psychological therapy has been shown to improve well-being and the therapeutic relationship, yet the majority of therapists never or rarely use touch. This research aimed to explore psychological processes underlying touch through the Alexander Technique, a psycho-physical technique taught one to one using touch. Six individuals who had received the Alexander Technique were interviewed, and 111 completed surveys. Interview data suggested an incompatibility between touch and the spoken word, which was understood through the way touch lacks verbal discourses in our society. The largely simplistic and dichotomous verbal understanding we have (either only very positive or very negative) could help understand some of the societal-level caution surrounding touch. Touch was seen also as a nurturing experience by interviewees, which influenced inter-personal and intra-personal relational processes. Developmental models were used to frame the way touch strengthened the pupil-teacher relationship and the way pupils' intra-personal psychological change seemed linked to this relational experience. The surveys largely supported these findings, and discussion is made around the notable way pupils negatively interpreted the intention of the survey. Implications for the use of touch in psychological therapies are discussed, as are limitations and ideas for future research.
Key practitioner message: Touch is a powerful experience, and physical contact within psychological therapy has been shown to improve well-being and the therapeutic relationship, yet the majority of therapists never or rarely use touch. The AT is an alternative therapeutic approach to psycho-physical well-being that offers an interesting model to study the impact of touch. Findings from those that have used the technique reaffirmed that touch can improve well-being and can be a powerful force in the 'therapeutic relationship'. Accounts drew strong parallels with developmental experiences, which may be of particular interest to those working psychodynamically. Findings also highlighted the lack of discourses our culture has for touch and how the ones we share can be super-imposed onto experiences. This should be kept in mind when discussing all types of physical contact with clients. Outcomes from AT pupils cannot be generalized to those seeking psychological support; however, the findings accentuated the power of holistic working. This is important as we begin to understand more around how emotions are held in the body.
Keywords: Alexander Technique; alternative; psychological therapies; touch.
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.