Healing Touch and Therapeutic Touch for Anxiety and Stress

Ancient healing techniques but unknown mechanism 

Non-contact and so-called ‘energy’ healing techniques have been used in all world regions for thousands of years. Although widely used to treat a range of medical and mental health problems, research findings are difficult to interpret because of problems inherent in measuring a putative mechanism of action and quantifying outcomes. From a Western scientific perspective non-contact and hands-on healing techniques are referred to as ‘biofield therapies’ based on the assumption that an energetic principle exists in humans and all life forms, imbalances in ‘energy’ manifest as diverse physical or emotional symptoms, and the skillful manipulation of ‘energy’ by healers can correct such imbalances restoring good health. To date, Western style research studies have not been able to demonstrate a mechanism underlying Healing Touch, Therapeutic Touch or other biofield therapies. It has been suggested that failure to empirically confirm a mechanism of action may reflect the limitations of current science which lacks methods capable of verifying the role of quantum mechanics or other postulated non-local phenomena that may play a role in energy therapies.

Research findings are mixed

In Healing Touch (HT) the practitioner does not actually have physical contact the patient but positions the hands above different parts of the body with the intention of facilitating healing. In contrast, in Therapeutic Touch (TT) the practitioner uses gentle touch. Most studies done on Healing Touch (HT) and Therapeutic Touch (TT) are small pilot studies or small open trials in individuals who report anxiety or other mental health problems in the context of chronic pain, cancer or other medical conditions. TT may have beneficial effects in chronically anxious patients, and in non-demented elderly nursing home patients, but there is limited evidence for anxiety reducing effects of TT in healthy adults. The findings of two early studies using sham healers in the control group suggest that both contact and non-contact healing reduces state anxiety in patients hospitalized for heart problems. Unfortunately, neither study adequately controlled for anxiety reducing effects of medications taken by some patients.

Findings of two small open studies suggest that patients who receive HT therapy experience significant reductions in emotional and physical symptoms of trauma. A small double-blind sham-controlled trial did not find significant differences in self-reported levels of stress in students treated by Healing Touch practitioners compared to students treated by sham practitioners. In one 4 week study 3rd year nursing students assigned to one weekly session of HT plus music versus music only reported significant reductions in transient and chronic stress and improved sleep. However, among 1st year students, no significant differences between stress levels in the HT and control group were reported.

Negative results of controlled studies raise the question of a general beneficial effect or possibly a threshold anxiety level above which HT is ineffective, or a placebo effect related to the quality or frequency of contact between the HT practitioner and the patient. It has been suggested that different outcomes reflect different skill levels of healers who participate in different studies (Ferguson 1986). Because of the heterogeneity in study designs, small study sizes, and methodological limitations of studies on biofield therapies, systematic reviews of published studies report that HT and TT sometimes improve overall quality of life but report inconclusive findings on outcomes studies of both modalities in the treatment of anxiety, other mental health problems and medical disorders that have been investigated (Anderson & Taylor 2011; Robinson & Biley 2007). An important exception is TT for cancer as many cancer patients who receive regular TT experience improvements in overall health and emotional well-being.

High perceived effectiveness

Despite the absence of compelling empirical evidence for Healing Touch, patient satisfaction surveys show that most patients complaining of anxiety or pain who receive HT treatments report significant subjective benefits. For example, in one small open study on the perceived effectiveness of Healing Touch, 40% of patients reported that calming effects lasted more than 2 weeks following the end of treatment, and 60% experienced feelings of “spiritual well-being” lasting at least 2 weeks after treatment ended. The significance of these findings is difficult to interpret because established rating scales were not used to grade symptom severity before and after the trial.

In sum, research findings suggest that Healing Touch has general beneficial effects on stress and anxiety associated with pain and some medical disorders as well as trauma, however small sample sizes, inadequate controls and potential biases preclude generalizations about the clinical benefits of HT and TT for anxiety. Despite the paucity of empirical evidence for HT, TT and other energy therapies, consistent patient reports show that biofield therapies often result in significant improvement in life quality and help improve the individual’s ability to cope with chronic stress and anxiety.

You can find information about energy therapies and other complementary and alternative treatments of stress and anxiety in my e-book “Anxiety: The Integrative Mental Health Solution.”

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