Tactile defensiveness is considered a sensory processing issue, where the individual’s neurological system is “hypersensitive” to touch sensations. As a result, the sensory system is overwhelmed by touch sensations that the average individual perceives as neutral. Touch is experienced as irritating, bothersome, and in some instances painful. The following conversation explores the collaborative process a student and I used to work with her tactile defensiveness, which prevented the use of touch as part of our Feldenkrais® sessions.
Joan Clapper: What has your life been like living with sensory and tactile discomfort?
Student: For me, it has meant living in isolation. Going to the grocery store was so hard because I had to avoid any aisle that had even one person. If I had to pass someone on the street, I either would swerve away from them or suddenly go in the opposite direction. If someone unexpectedly tried to reassure me with a hug or pat on the back, I would jerk back. Although I have always had a loving heart, none of that showed by the way I acted around people. I was in a constant state of anxiety because of the fear that someone was going to come into physical contact with me. Friendships were difficult; intimate relationships impossible.
I didn’t understand how someone was going to help me overcome my sensory and tactile discomfort without overwhelming me with the very discomfort I was trying to abate? I had overcome a lot in my life, but this issue of physical closeness seemed like something I’d have to live with forever. Then, I heard about the Feldenkrais Method and found you!
I’ve often wondered, what was it like for you to work with someone who had so much difficulty with touch?
JC: I learned how important it was for me to be comfortable with asking you for your perspective, to realize you had many of the answers; in other words, that collaborating with you was essential.
ST: Were there any obstacles to you moving forward in this manner?
JC: I need to be comfortable with saying that “I don’t know. Let’s figure this out together.”
ST: I appreciated your willingness to show up as a professional with the confidence of ‘not knowing.’
JC: There wasn’t any way of moving forward in our work together without you being involved in it.
ST: I liked the way we would meet at the beginning of each session to review the previous session, talk about homework, and come up with ideas for the current session. I would tell you how much of a challenge I was up to that day.
JC: Yes. Then, throughout the session, we would stop to check into your reaction and create other ways of how you might engage in the activities we had developed, or to modify the activities.
ST: This reminds me of how I found it so beneficial when you would notice my responses and would actually give me words so that I could notice and label these responses in the future.
JC: I also remember that we made a provision that you could leave whenever your nervous system felt overwhelmed. We worked a lot with breathing to help you learn to calm your nervous system when it had become over-stimulated.
ST: What could we have done instead of that?
JC: I could have talked you through a series of movements like we do in classes, but that approach would not have been as meaningful for you.
ST: Yes. I wanted to directly work on the tactile defensiveness so I could gain the ability to have closer relationships with people in my life. I think it’s a misconception that people who have difficulty with touch do not desire intimacy since, like me, they’ll often go to great measures to avoid being physically close to others.
JC: Simply talking you through movements would not necessarily have addressed those goals. We had to figure out a way to work with the sensory issues without making physical contact. I think that is when we started using the strategy of saying specific words in a rhythmical pattern to help you initiate new movements, and then having you repeat those words.
ST: Like when we started using a strap to help me gain more movement in my right leg. We talked it through. First, you guiding me by saying “pull right, relax, pull left, relax.” Then I took over saying the words, and it helped me learn the new pattern of movement.
JC: It was also like when we went out to the street to work on you being more comfortable walking by people.
ST: Right. We first used the lamp poles as props for me to walk by and around. This was a step of desensitization because I didn’t have to worry about touching other people, but could focus on the intermediate step of moving with ease around something else.
JC: Had you ever tried anything like this before?
ST: Never. I remember being so happy when you came up with the idea of using props to help me with my movement awareness because it seemed like something I could do. This was such a different experience from feeling like a failure because I just could not tolerate being touched.
JC: What was it like for you to be working with props, like rollers and ropes?
ST: A practitioner might think, “Well, they don’t like to be touched, so using a prop between us will solve that problem.” After all, the practitioner is on one end not touching me, and I’m at the other end not touching them – tactile defensiveness solved. But that was not how it was for me. I can specifically remember holding onto a rope to work on my balance and feeling quite a bit of anxiety because I was connected to you, and I could feel the movements of your body. I think that for me, using the rope as a prop was an intermediate stage of desensitization.
JC: What we’re talking about is not just touch. It’s what we could call a ‘movement defensiveness’ related to having someone outside of yourself creating movement in your body. Your nervous system has to respond to movement that you are not controlling. There is actually a defensiveness related to both touch and movement, and how they interact with the nervous system.
ST: I don’t think it’s just about control, though. For me, I am so sensitive that when you would pull the rope, it might be like someone else’s sensation of being touched; like what someone else might experience when you would directly touch them to move their leg up higher. So I had to get used to the sensation of my body being influenced by another before I could try other stuff.
JC: My guess is that anybody who has tactile defensiveness does not experience touch just starting at the skin. An important thing for practitioners to realize is that their touch begins before contact is made. Using props can be a useful technique to avoid direct touch, but we need to recognize that the interaction creating movement with the prop may result in a defensive response due to a loss of control.
ST: What worked for me was that you recognized my need to have some control. You also saw that touch needed to start further out from my body so that my nervous system could tolerate the sensation, but I can’t remember if we started out with you controlling the rope or if you had me in control first.
JC: We started out with you controlling my movements with the rope.
ST: And that was such a useful strategy for me because it allowed me to be in control while first exploring how my movements through the rope initiated your movements. I think other professionals in the past have labeled me as resistive or uncooperative when the issue was the need for the practitioner to consider options for breaking down a concept into its micro parts.
JC: That makes sense. I hear you say that movement is going to feel much bigger to you, like the sensation of touch feels much bigger because of your tactile defensiveness. A movement or touch that is not a big deal for me could over-activate your nervous system. I didn’t realize until after we had worked together for a while that asking you to change a movement could feel threatening.
ST: I have a rigid way of moving or not moving which has a set pattern that follows the right way of doing things in my mind. If that pattern gets changed, I feel extreme anxiety. When we first started working, it was really hard to follow a movement you initiated, whether through verbal directions or props. I had very specific ways that my body could move and was allowed to move; almost like rules. For example, I never could turn my back on anyone in a room. That meant that I either had to take the corner area or be super aware of everyone else so I wouldn’t run into them accidentally.
JC: To a lesser extent I believe everybody has habits of movement that they feel stuck in, and changing those patterns is basically what the Feldenkrais Method is about. Tactile and “movement” sensitivities are always going to be on a continuum, but for someone with sensory defensiveness, being neurologically flexible in the ways the Feldenkrais Method asks of them is often difficult. It requires continuous collaboration between the student and practitioner. Sensory defensiveness can be challenging, but the potential for creativity and growth in both the practitioner and student is enhanced through the collaborative process.
Joan Clapper, GCFP is both an occupational therapist and a Feldenkrais practitioner. She has worked for over 35 years in the medical field, “but it wasn’t until I discovered the Feldenkrais Method that my profession became my art and my own process of self-discovery.” She became a certified Feldenkrais practitioner in 1996 and began to integrate the Feldenkrais Method as part of her work as an occupational therapist in various settings in Portland and Corvallis. She now owns a private practice in Corvallis. You can learn more about Joan Clapper and her practice at https://movementwise.wordpress.com.
If you have any questions for either Joan Clapper or the student about the ideas in this article, please feel free to contact Joan Clapper at [email protected].
The student has a background in Social Work and worked with Joan Clapper for four years both individually and in weekly Feldenkrais classes. The student originally began taking Feldenkrais lessons as a way to regain mobility after back surgery and deal with the neurological effects of encephalopathy and intractable seizures since the age of 11. After working with Joan, the student is able to move comfortably through crowds, goes to the store regularly, and even sat on a crowded beach in the middle of a Fourth of July celebration last summer.