Anti-covidanxiety toolkit #7: Hands-on
Hands are incredibly, marvelously, terribly important. On one level we've all become hugely aware of that over the last few weeks, since what we do with our hands (wash or not wash them, touch or not touch other people or our own faces) can play a major role in spreading--or inhibiting--the potential tsunami of COVID-19 infections.
Hands, of course, can be used for many other things as well, including calming and healing. Several of the tools I've posted in previous toolkits suggest using hands in different ways to help reduce anxiety, including hands on, help something grow, coloring, dance while you wash, and hand to heart. And what parent (or grampa or auntie) hasn't walked the halls at night, gently soothing a fussy infant...with their hands? And caregivers know--that kind of gentle comforting can sometimes help calm the adult as much as the baby.
In the hands-on section of my first toolkit, I cited psychologist Kelly Lambert's book, Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist's Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain's Healing Power. She describes how her research lead her to conclude that if you (a) do something with your hands that (b) you enjoy, and that (c) is productive in some way, it can help decrease depression.
Part of the reason for that, Dr. Lambert explains, is because such comparatively huge portions of the brain are devoted to processing sensory input from the hands. Even larger areas are dedicated to hand movement.
Perhaps you have seen one of those outlandish statues that show the relative relationship of brain space to body parts? Known respectively as the sensory homunculus (seen at right) and the motor homunculus, they are both bizarre and fascinating.
Artist Sharon Price-James, who designed and created the original homunculus statues (first conceived by the American/Canadian neurologist Dr. Wilder Penfield), notes on her website that the sensory homunculus "is a physical representation of how the human body would look, if the size of various body parts grew in proportion to the cortical area [of the brain] given over to their specific sensory function."
In other words, the hands of the homunculus are large because the sensory input from the hands occupies such a huge percentage of the brain's cortical regions. Pretty wild, isn't it?
What does this have to do with calming anxiety? Since hands take up so much brain real estate, so to speak, perhaps doing soothing things with the hands, or touching the hands in soothing ways, has much more of an effect than if the brain areas involved were very small.
So, here are some hands-on tools I have found helpful.
Palm icons. Decide on some very simple figure or symbol that has a positive supportive meaning for you--symbolic, emotional, inspirational and/or archetypal. It could be, say, a basic heart shape, the outline of an animal, tree, mountain or sunrise, or a religious symbol. Anything that is meaningful to you, and very simple to draw. Pause for a moment. Muse on the ways this icon inspires and touches you. Now slowly...gently...mindfully, draw your icon on the palm of your hand with your finger. Pause for a few moments. Be aware of any physical or emotional sensations that may come with this process.
If you want, you can draw the same thing on the other palm. Then hold your hands together, as in prayer. Or put your hands on your face--this is fine if you are in a safe space and have washed your hands! Or just stay still and continue to experience the sensations.
Given the exquisite sensitivity of the hand, this can be quietly but surprisingly profound, a bit like gentle reverberations of a string instrument. When I do it, it is almost as if I am feeling the essence of what the icon means to me somewhere in my body or psyche, deeper than words.
Heave a sigh of gratitude. Open your eyes wide and say, "wow." Or just rest.
Hand to hand. This is a slightly simpler variation of the palm icon. Gently stroke the palm of one hand with a finger or fingers of the other. As with the palm icon, pay attention to the physical sensations and any peace or ease, or wonder, they may bring. Wish yourself peace. And keep it slow and simple--less is usually better than more. "It's amazing how much how little will do." (Hugh Milne)
Patting. Another zapchen exercise: Pat yourself all over with the palms of your hands. Pat very gently or more firmly, as you prefer. If you start at the top of your head and go down your torso, it's easier to know you've covered everything. Pat one arm with the other hand, starting at the fingers and moving up to the shoulders, then do the other arm. Same with the legs--start at the feet and pat up, using two hands on each leg. Be sure to pat everything, including all features of your face. You can use a pillow to pat the areas of your back that you can't reach, or gently bump those areas up against a doorway, or if you have a friend or partner handy, ask them to pat your back.
Julie Henderson, zapchen creator, notes that patting can help you have an "increased awareness of physical, energetic and psychological boundaries [and] helps the immune system know its 'job' more accurately." All this can help "increase confidence and clarity and impact." Therefore decreasing anxiety.
Squeezing. Squeeze your arms and legs and torso, gently but with some firmness. You can follow the path of squeezing noted in the patting section, though you don't need to squeeze everything as with patting, only as much as feels comfortable and reassuring. Like patting, this can help remind you that you have a body, that you are here in this present time and space. Often that is calming in and of itself, pulling you out of anxiety about the future and ruminations about the past. It can also be a sign of affection or appreciation, as you might gently squeeze a baby's bottom, leg or tummy.
I wonder--do the brains of people born without hands or those who lose a hand or hands in an accident shift some of their attention or "real estate" to other areas of the body? I wouldn't be at all surprised.
Until next time,
Nathan Dumlao (cover), unSplash
Liv Bruce, unSplash
Liane Metzler, unSplash
Jonas Vincent, unSplash